Taking care of our skin can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. At least, it has for me for the past couple years. My skin suddenly seemed to have a mind of its own, fluctuating between various states of dry and oily, with strange rashes and bouts of uncertainty mixed in.
But I didn't always struggle with my skin. Granted, I'd occasionally see a pimple appear around my cycle; but for the most part, my skin was clear throughout my life. It wasn't until I went off birth control and started a vegan diet that my skin started acting....unusual.
I got on the pill in college, as most women do, and was on the pill for three years before stopping cold turkey in the summer of 2014, after finally reading about the risks and realizing that the digestive issues and severe moodiness I'd been experiencing could be attributed to the synthetic hormones I was taking each day. I didn't know at the time that going off birth control without a plan in place can spell disaster for your body.
Thankfully, my cycle remained pretty steady, and the digestive issues subsided. But what increased were the breakouts on my skin, and the intensity of my monthly cramps. I brushed them off as transition pains and waited for things to clear up (literally). While my breakouts were minor in the scheme of things, it was something I'd never experienced before; and my confidence took a hit. I was already on a health kick as it was--hence my desire to stop taking the pill--and by fall 2015, I decided to give veganism a shot.
I wish I could say that a vegan diet cleared up my skin once and for all and took my cramps away. And at first, I was convinced it was working. Those new spots around my chin? Oh, just detox, I told myself. Those 10 pounds I lost in the first year? My body was just finding its ideal weight. I was so enamored with my new lifestyle, so inspired and encouraged, that I was certain my skin was better than it had been. Looking back at photos now, I can see that it was wasn't. In fact, it was worse than before.
Shocking, right? You'd think eating just vegetables, whole grains and legumes, and some fruits and nuts would cure any and all ailments. But unfortunately, by January 2017, my skin had gotten so out of control that I didn't even want to leave the house. It took me twice as long to put makeup on just to cover the redness (the bumps were too big to hide) that plagued the skin around my chin and lips--that's where my issues were concentrated.
I started writing down every single thing I ate, how much I was exercising, what skincare products and cleaning products and hand soaps I used. I started sleeping with my hair up and changing my pillowcase every day. I drank at least 12 cups of water a day. Nothing worked. So I started eliminating more foods, thinking it was a food allergy, or that I was doing the vegan diet wrong. The vegan community tends to think fat is "bad," so I stopped eating avocados, nuts, and olive oil and got my daily fat intake down to 10%--the ideal by the plant-based community's standards. And that's when all hell broke loose.
My periods got more painful each month, and I started dealing with crippling anxiety and depression. I lost almost 10 more pounds. I felt fatigued and foggy headed. And my skin was at the point where there were no more clear days. I wasn't eating a single gram of refined grains or sugar. I didn't eat any processed or packaged foods at this point. So I started adding more supplements into my diet: switching the types and doses of the vitamin b12 I'd been taking, incorporating an algae-based omega-3 supplement, eating more chia seeds, trying everything from vitex to vitamin D3. It just got worse.
By April, I was exhausted by my efforts. After another breakdown while on the phone with my mother, per her advice, I decided to try something different. I knew in my gut that the issues were hormone-related; the acne was only around my chin, and cystic, unlike anything I'd ever experienced. Coupled with the severe menstrual cramps and terrible PMS-like symptoms, I was certain it was related to my hormones. But where had I gone wrong?
Everyone had been talking about this book, WomanCode by Alisa Vitti, for many months. Of course, I'd ignored it, given that the book wasn't vegan. But I was desperate. I downloaded a copy to my Kindle, and within 48 hours, had ordered a hardcover copy as well. It was like a wake-up call. What Vitti wrote about was spot on to many of the things I was going through. I read the book twice in a matter of days and set to work on her protocol right away.
Vitti's protocol is unique because she recommends specific foods for each week of your cycle--fermented and sprouted foods during your follicular phase; raw fruits and vegetables during your ovulatory phase; roasted root vegetables during your luteal phase; and healthy fats during your menstrual phase. You don't have to eat only those foods each week, but incorporating many of them into your diet supports your hormones throughout your cycle.
Within weeks of following her protocol, my skin started clearing up, and my mood stabilized. My menstrual cramps during my next cycle were more manageable. I felt stronger. I started putting weight back on. After six weeks, once my skin had cleared up completely, I decided to take the next step and switch up my skincare routine as well--I had been using salicylic acid for the past two years to no avail, and I knew it was probably not helping my skin. I read Skin Cleanse by Adina Grigore, and then bought her skincare line, S.W. Basics. My skin went from just being clear to actually healing--the hyper-pigmentation and discoloration and scars slowly fading away as time went on. It felt like a miracle.
At this point, I feel comfortable enough to go without makeup most days. I've found a stable diet and lifestyle that keeps my skin (and mind) clear--I'm no longer striving for perfection, and have found that this balanced approach is what works best for me. So, just what does that include?
On a daily basis, I don't eat gluten, sugar, dairy, alcohol or caffeine. That's it. Nothing else is off limits, and I follow an 80/20 formula now, which means I can still enjoy a slice of cake or ice cream cone when I feel like it without serious consequences. I get to enjoy social outings and treat myself without sacrificing my health.
My diet is still mostly plant-based, loaded with vegetables but incorporating adequate amounts of protein and many more healthy fats--avocados, coconut oil, nuts, chia seeds, and olive oil are daily staples for me, because fats are essential for hormone health. Fermented foods like sauerkraut are also part of my diet, because our gut microbiome has to be rebuilt after being on birth control pills, which act like antibiotics in our bodies. I supplement with probiotics and cod liver oil. And I don't force myself to drink 12 cups of water these days (I'm usually around 6 cups, depending on my level of exercise).
Speaking of exercise....just like the foods on Vitti's protocol, there are ideal exercises for each week of our cycle: cardio during follicular; interval-training during ovulatory; strength training during luteal; and restorative/rest during our menstrual. I try to stick with this and only do 30 minutes at a time. I make sure to take a walk every day, and get at least 8 hours of sleep each night. I meditate and do yoga in the mornings, which is not only good for my body, but my mind.
And my skincare routine has become simple and nourishing. I use S.W. Basics cleanser (just rosewater, glycerin, and tea tree oil), toner (water, witch hazel, apple cider vinegar, and some essential oils), and makeup remover, which also doubles as moisturizer (olive oil, sweet almond oil, and jojoba oil). I spot treat with tea tree oil if needed, but I rarely do. I only cleanse my skin once a day, before bed. Sometimes I'll do a mud mask or green tea mask followed by an argan oil cleanse, but no more than once or twice a month, and only when my skin feels dull.
If you're struggling with skin issues (or other hormonal problems), I highly recommend reading WomanCode. Examine your diet and see where you're lacking--are you eating too many sugars and refined grains? Are you missing good quality omega-3's from wild caught fatty fish like salmon? Are you not eating enough vegetables? Check out your skincare--is it full of hormone-disruptive chemicals and unnatural ingredients? What about your exercise routine--are you moving enough, or maybe too much?
I've learned so much about the endocrine system over the last several months. Both Vitti and Grigore teach us not only how to balance our hormones as women, but also how to live our most vibrant lives. These books are invaluable resources for women, especially in a world where doctors tell us our hormonal symptoms are "normal" or can be "cured" with birth control. What I've learned is that these symptoms are not normal, and they aren't caused by a birth control deficiency. What we eat, how we live, and the products we use impact our health, and many of our issues can be healed with simple lifestyle and diet changes. It's incredible how resilient our bodies are. They want to be in equilibrium--we just need to know how to reach it.