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Veganism is good for the planet, but is it bad for my sex drive?

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Jennifer asks:

I started a Vegan diet 40 days ago. I have been very careful with everything I have been eating as far as ingredients are concerned. Since the start of my diet I have had absolutely no interest in sex and now I have a yeast infection. I would appreciate any advice or input you may offer. Thank you for your time.

Heather Corinna replies:

Hey there, Jennifer. I'm a long-time vegan and vegetarian myself. Welcome to the club!

It's entirely possible that your switching to a vegan diet and the lowered libido and/or the yeast infection are coincidental. But I can think of a couple possibilities and things to try in terms of your diet in case they aren't. As well, both of these issues may just be temporary as your body adjusts to your new diet, particularly if this is a very big change, rather than a change you made very gradually over a substantial period of time.

Before anything else, get that yeast infection treated by your sexual/reproductive healthcare provider.

Before you switched to veganism, did you eat a lot of soy products? Have you -- as many vegans do -- added them now?

Additionally, if you've removed dairy from your diet or meats, are you also eating more carbohydrates, especially simple carbs, then you were before? How about processed foods, like frozen vegan meals or meats? In any of those cases, I can see possibilities for an overgrowth of yeast, and with the soy, for possible changes in your libido.

What I'd suggest trying to see if it is any of those issues is first taking a couple weeks without soy. That'd by soy milks or cheeses, tofu, tempeh, a lot of the veggie meats and burgers, etc. Instead, with your milks and cheeses, you can switch to rice or nut milks or cheeses, and to get your proteins, shift over to legume (bean) and nut proteins. Soy contains phytoestrogens, a naturally occurring plant compound that can have estrogenic effects. Some women use phytoestrogens as a natrural means of estrogen therapy for menopausal symptoms. Lower libido is a typical estrogenic effect, from any kind of estrogen, as can be an increase in yeast imbalances.

If, after a couple of weeks, you start to notice those two issues are no longer problems or have gotten less severe, then I'd suggest that in your new diet, you try and keep your soy intake very moderate. I know that that can make being vegan a lot tougher, but once you get the hang of your other alternatives, it shouldn't be that big of a deal. It also will usually mean more cooking on your own, so if you live at home and your shopping or cooking is limited, you might want to have a gab with your folks about how you can be better able to cook for yourself. One easy way to do that when you have a vegan diet in a non-vegan home (and this can be the case if you have roomies as well) can be to plan family meals where your meal is something that they can just add meat or dairy to themselves if they like. Stir-frys are great for that as are casseroles, salads or sandwiches.

If you're just learning to cook for yourself and to cook vegean, some cookbooks I like a lot, which also contain many different recipes that aren't just soy-based are Isa Chandra Moskowitz' Vegan with a Vengeance : Over 150 Delicious, Cheap, Animal-Free Recipes That Rock and Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook and Sarah Kramer and Tanya Barnard's How It All Vegan!: Irresistible Recipes for an Animal-Free Diet and The Garden of Vegan: How It All Vegan Again! For a health-based cookbook with lots of additional information on your health and eating, Dr. Neal Barnard's Breaking the Food Seduction: The Hidden Reasons Behind Food Cravings---And 7 Steps to End Them Naturally is excellent.

Be sure, too, to watch your intake of simple carbs and other sources of wheat gluten. Again, rice can be your friend here in terms of pastas and breads. As well, keep an eye on your intake of processed foods, refined sugar and caffeine.

In terms of the libido issue, I'd also be sure you have a good daily zinc supplement and a supplement of B-12. Both of those play a part with libido, and both can tend to be missing or low in a lot of vegan diets. As well, if you've often been prone to yeast infections, or find, over time, that you're getting them more frequently now, you might also want to add a milk-free acidophilus supplement to your diet. If you ate dairy yogurt before, you probably got plenty of that good flora from it which you're not getting anymore now. For more ideas on supplements and foods which benefit your libido and your reproductive health, have a look here: Sexual Health 101: Hers.

Lastly, also be sure you're eating enough food, period. Often, when a person switches to veganism, they wind up eating a lot less calories than they did before, particularly if you've just cut out high-fat dairy or red meat. If your energy feels low as well as your libido, that could be because you simply need to eat more food than you are. Young people in particular really should be eating a lot of calories -- around 2,200 is what most nutritionists suggest for young women.

Good luck, enjoy your new veganism, and I hope these issues clear up for you soon.

written 19 Jul 2008 . updated 19 Jul 2008

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