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Food has always been a huge part of my life. It’s a source of endless pleasure, delightful flavours, and friend-filled gatherings. But when my vulvodynia started, I was forced to realize that food was even so much more.

Your body is like a car 🚗. If you think about a car, it’s obvious that you wouldn’t put the wrong type of gas into it, right? As it might malfunction or even break. Well, the same goes for your body. Whatever you put in you, you will get back in terms of your health.

And the saying “you are what you eat” is undoubtedly true when it comes to vulvodynia.

Vulvodynia and Inflammation

When your immune system detects a foreign substance (bacteria, virus, or toxin) or an injury, it triggers inflammation — a defense mechanism that helps to fight off invaders and aids the healing process. Inflammation can be either acute or chronic.

Acute Inflammation

Acute inflammation is a rapid process. Signs of inflammation include redness, swelling, heat, loss of function and pain, caused by the work of immune cells in the affected area.

Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is one that lasts too long (even months or years) and can have whole-body effects. Unlike acute inflammation, it produces steady, low-level symptoms (like fatigue, rashes, random body pains) and can be triggered even when there isn’t a disease to fight or an injury to heal. ⚠️ Chronic inflammation is what you should pay attention to if you suffer from vulvodynia ⚠️.

Vulvodynia is closely related to inflammation — even provoked localized vulvodynia was once called vestibulitis (“itis” means inflammation). Research shows that V Warriors have more mast cells (cells responsible for inflammation) in their vulvas which make them more prone to vulvar inflammation. Moreover, their immune systems are less effective in ending inflammation, which can lead to chronic inflammation (bodywide including vulvar).

Food and Inflammation

Research shows that food is a significant contributor to chronic inflammation. If you eat inflammatory foods daily, you are constantly turning on your body’s defense mechanism. Over time, if your body is constantly inflamed, this can lead to a lot of issues like weight gain, digestive issues, skin problems but also vulvodynia 😔.

Everyone’s body is different and you will need some time to figure out which exact foods cause your pain. However, based on my experience and other V Warriors, there are 10 types of inflammatory foods that can contribute to your vulvodynia. Cutting these problematic foods from your menu can help you to decrease your pain, or maybe even forget about it forever.

#1 Sugar

Sugar is the king of inflammation1 and unfortunately for my sweet tooth it was one of the biggest culprits of my vulvodynia. My personal experience aligns with that of many V Warriors, who notice that sugary foods skyrocket 🚀 their vulvar pain.

Sugar makes my vulvodynia worse. Whenever I eat a lot, I'm in a complete flare-up - itchy and burning.

EmilyV Warrior

I have noticed a direct correlation to sugar and irritation of my V symptoms. I made a cake for my birthday and now I am having a really bad flare-up.

Sarah L.V Warrior

There are so many ways in which sugar can contribute to your inflammation and ultimately to your vulvar pain:

  • Sugar decreases your gut bacteria diversity2 and fuels harmful bacteria and yeast in your gut (maybe you have even noticed that the more sugary foods you eat, the more often you suffer from yeast infections!)
  • Sugar increases the levels of proinflammatory messengers called cytokines3 in your body
  • Sugar weakens your immune system and suppresses the effectiveness of your white blood cells (germ-killing cells). This also makes you more susceptible to infectious diseases (YES, vaginal infections included!)
  • Diets rich in added sugar (and refined carbs) can lead to weight gain and excess body fat which is linked to inflammation — partly due to insulin resistance4
  • Sugar damages your intestine’s natural lining56

⚡ Issue

The biggest problem that I encountered when cutting off sugar was figuring out which products actually contain it. It’s often hidden in products that you wouldn’t even consider, plus there are at least 50 different names for it that appear on your ingredient labels.

Some foods containing processed sugar:

  • Alcohol
  • Bread and baked goods (cakes, cookies, donuts, muffins, pretzels, crackers)
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Candies and even nutritional bars!
  • Canned fruits, juices, jams
  • Coffee drinks
  • Flavoured yogurts, ice cream
  • Medication like Tylenol
  • Salt
  • Sauces and condiments like salad dressing
  • Sweetened beverages like soft drinks (pop, soda), energy drinks, sports drinks

#2 Problematic Fats

You may hear claims that fats are bad, however, not all fats are made the same. Your body also needs them for energy production, vitamin and mineral absorption, cell building and more.

The general rule of thumb is that monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are good, industrial-made trans fats are bad and saturated fats fall somewhere in the middle. This more or less aligns with my personal experience and that of other V Warriors.

2.1 Vegetable Common Cooking Oils

In general, polyunsaturated fats are considered beneficial for your health. However, this might not be the case when it comes to your vulvar pain level.

Common cooking plant-based oils (polyunsaturated vegetable oils) such as grape seed, cottonseed, safflower, corn, palm and sunflower oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids (inflammatory fats) and low in omega-3 fatty acids (anti-inflammatory fats)7. A highly imbalanced omega-6 to omega-3 ratio promotes inflammation.

I have also noticed a pattern that whenever I eat products prepared with vegetable cooking oils, they would make me constipated. And getting constipated always increases my pain.

Interestingly, this almost always takes place when I eat out but never happens at home where I solely use coconut oil or ghee for cooking.

So to clear my doubts, I did research by asking numerous places what types of oils they use for cooking. The answers always boiled down to canola, sunflower, corn, safflower or palm oil. No place used coconut oil or ghee; I was informed they were simply too expensive.

AgaMe + My V

Some foods containing vegetable oils:

  • Fried foods from fast-food restaurants: french fries, fried chicken, doughnuts
  • Refrigerated dough products: biscuits, cinnamon rolls, frozen pizza
  • Sauces: mayonnaise, salad dressings, barbecue sauce
  • Snack food: potato chips, microwave popcorn, crackers

2.2 Trans Fats

You might have noticed that eating snacks or pre-made foods increases your vulvodynia. This can be due to the amount of trans fats they contain.

While the unsaturated vs. saturated fats battle is still a debate, science knows for sure that trans fats are bad for us. Trans fats are liquid vegetable oils turned artificially into solid form in a process called hydrogenation. They are beneficial only to food producers as they are cheap, easy to make, and have increased shelf life (they don’t go rancid).

Trans fats don’t occur naturally in foods and your body doesn’t have a mechanism to break them down. Studies have shown that they have been positively associated with inflammation8.

Trans fats are also called partially hydrogenated oil and vegetable shortening.

💡 Important Fact

Even items listed with 0g trans fats on the label may still contain some amount of these toxic fats. In the US, the government allows items containing less than 0.5g of trans fats to be declared as trans-fat free.

Some foods containing trans fats:

  • Coffee creamer
  • Fried foods from fast-food restaurants: french fries, fried chicken, doughnuts
  • Ready-to-use frosting
  • Refrigerated dough products: biscuits, cinnamon rolls, frozen pizza
  • Sauces: mayonnaise, salad dressings, barbecue sauce
  • Snack food: potato chips, microwave popcorn, crackers
  • Stick margarine
  • Vegetable shortening

2.3 Fried Foods

You might also notice your pain increasing after consuming fried foods 🍟.

Fried foods (and in general, foods that have been exposed to high temperature during grilling, frying, toasting, roasting, baking, frying, sautéeing, broiling and searing9) tend to be high in inflammatory compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). When AGEs build up in the body it causes oxidative stress and chronic inflammation10.

Some foods containing AGEs:

  • Fats, including butter, margarine, oil, mayonnaise
  • Fried foods (like fried eggs)
  • High-fat (especially red) meats
  • Processed foods, including packaged meats and cheese
  • Sugary items such as candy, cookies, cakes, soda, and pastries

2.4 Saturated Fats

Saturated fats 🧈 are needed, but if you suffer from vulvodynia you might try to eat them in moderation.

Saturated fats trigger inflammation of white fat cells (cells that store energy, rather than burn it like brown fat cells do). When your white fat cells get bigger with greater intakes of saturated fats, they actually release pro-inflammatory agents that promote systemic inflammation11. Saturated fats also “short-circuit” your immune cells, producing an inappropriate inflammatory response in your body12.

Some foods containing saturated fats:

  • Animal products
  • Processed meat like cold cuts, sausages

#3 Alcohol

There are research studies proving that drinking alcohol (like wine 🍷) in moderation can have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body13. However, this doesn’t seem to apply to V Warriors who frequently suffer more after drinking (even after small amounts).

Alcohol is a neurotoxin. When you consume it in large quantities, it can irritate your body and disrupt its regular functions. This might happen because the process of breaking down alcohol generates toxic byproducts that promote inflammation, damage liver cells, weaken the immune system14, disrupt gut bacteria, and change brain structure and function. All of these factors can contribute to your pain level.

Yes alcohol (especially wine) is the only thing that consistently triggers pain for me.

AnnaV Warrior

It definitely worsens the pain for me! Within a few hours of drinking alcohol I’m usually on fire.

EmilyV Warrior

💡 Interesting Fact

Alcohol is a diuretic so it can increase your peeing frequency and its dehydrating effect can irritate your bladder (making it painful and burning when you pee).

Some foods containing alcohol:

  • Alcoholic beverages like wine, beer, vodka, whisky, etc.
  • Chocolates
  • Flavoured coffees, teas

#4 Gluten

Another ingredient that can skyrocket your vulvar pain is gluten 🥯.

Usually gluten is seen as problematic if you have celiac disease or a wheat allergy. However, studies show that:

  • We humans are unable to digest gliadin (a protein found in gluten), which can damage intestinal lining whether you’re celiac or not15
  • 3% of the population may have non-celiac related gluten sensitivity16. This sensitivity causes gut bacteria dysbiosis which contributes to gut inflammation17

V Warriors seem to have the worst reaction after gluten from wheat, especially from pre-made conventional products18. This might be due to the shortened period of fermentation of these foods which makes gluten harder to digest. Another reason might be that modern strains of wheat contain a super starch known as amylopectin A and also ATI proteins (amylase-trypsin inhibitors) which have been shown to have inflammatory effects1920.

Gluten (especially from wheat) was one of my biggest food triggers. After eating it I would end up with severe body reactions like swelling, itching (yes, including vulva), horrible diarrhea and vomiting. Several times I actually passed out shivering in the bathtub.

AgaMe + My V

Some foods containing gluten:

  • Beer
  • Bread and baked goods (cakes, cookies, donuts, muffins, pretzels, crackers)
  • Cereal
  • Food additives
  • Pasta
  • Pizza
  • Read-to-go foods like soup mixes, microwave food
  • Sauces like salad dressings

#5 Problematic Meats

5.1 Processed Meats

Another problematic food when it comes to vulvodynia are processed meats 🌭.

First, they contains high levels of inflammatory compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs)21 because they are dried, smoked, pasteurized and cooked at high temperatures. Second, they are injected with preservatives, coloring, and artificial flavoring which also cause inflammation in your body. Additionally, a lot of processed meats are made from red meat, which despite various opinions, is also linked to inflammation2223.

Some foods containing processed meats:

  • Bacon, ham, bologna
  • Canned meat (SPAM)
  • Dried meat, beef jerky
  • Salted and cured meat, corned beef
  • Sausages, hot dogs, salami
  • Smoked meat

5.2 Conventional Grain-Fed Meats

Unless otherwise stated, most beef, pork and poultry you can find in supermarkets and restaurants come from feedlot farms. These types of meats may contain hormones and antibiotics (which are associated with body inflammation) and usually end up with higher levels of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids24 (as they are derived from animals that eat corn and soy).

They might be also higher in saturated fats (animals are fatter due to the small and tight living environments), which are also linked to inflammation.

#6 Artificial Additives

Another group of foods that can set your vulva on fire are artificial additives.

Under the umbrella of food additives25, you can find a range of different chemicals used in foods like colorants26, flavor enhancers, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, stabilizers, and emulsifying agents27.

Additives like aspartame and monosodium glutamate (MSG) can trigger inflammatory responses and preservatives such as polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose (CMPF, common emulsifiers in many processed foods) directly alter the gut microbiome composition.

I have checked this on myself countless times. Many foods that contain food additives would set my vulva on fire! It might be challenging to spot the exact artificial additives behind your pain — so in the end, the best idea is to steer away from all foods that might contain them.

AgaMe + My V

Some foods containing artificial additives:

  • Bread and baked goods (cakes, cookies, donuts, muffins, pretzels)
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Packaged food, canned food, frozen food
  • Processed food
  • Processed meat
  • Sauces and condiments like salad dressing
  • Soft drinks
  • Sweets, ice cream

6.1 Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners can contribute to inflammation in several ways:

  • They disrupt the composition of the gut bacteria by decreasing the levels of the good bacteria Bacteroides, which is known to help release anti-inflammatory compounds
  • Their consumption alters the gut bacteria which increases the risk of glucose intolerance and the release of inflammatory cytokines by your body2829

Some foods containing artificial sweeteners:

  • No-calorie “diet” soft drinks
  • No-sugar-added products

#7 Dairy

When searching online you might find conflicting information regarding dairy 🐄. Some sources claim that a moderate intake of yogurt can actually help decrease inflammation as it contains gut-healing probiotics30.

Other sources state that full-fat dairy can disrupt gut bacteria and induce inflammation because it contains saturated fat31. There are also other reasons why dairy can be inflammatory: it’s processed (pasteurized and homogenized) and could also come from grain-fed cows. Pasteurization damages proteins in milk which can disrupt gut flora32 and dairy from grain-fed cows have a pro-inflammatory ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.

Dairy is also a common allergen (thanks to lactose and casein) and any type of allergen can trigger inflammatory reactions through the release of histamines. Plus, as much as 60% of the world’s population cannot digest milk33, and problems with digestion can result in inflammation too34.

Dairy would really irritate my belly and whenever my gut was not happy, my vulvar pain would increase. It would also make me sluggish and tired, and increase my mucus production, making me feel like I was getting the flu. So if you notice that your pain increases after eating your beloved cheese then this might be the reason.

AgaMe + My V

Some foods containing diary:

  • Butter and butter blends
  • Cultured dairy like yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, sour cream, dips
  • Foods with hidden dairy content include breads, cookies, crackers, cakes, cream sauces, and boxed cereals
  • Frozen desserts, ice cream
  • Milk
  • Natural cheese and processed cheese products
  • Soy products (often containing casein)
  • Whey, milk powder

#8 Refined Carbohydrates

Refined carbohydrates might be yet another culprit behind your vulvar pain.

These types of carbohydrates are empty calories with a high glycemic index. They are stripped of their slow-digesting fiber and nutrients. Because of this, your body breaks them down very quickly which spikes your blood sugar level, creating an inflammatory response in your body3536. Furthermore, refined carbs encourage the growth of inflammatory gut bacteria3738.

To make things worse, many products with refined grains are often loaded with sugar, salt, artificial flavors and partially hydrogenated oil.

Refined carbs were a huge problem for me. After eating them I would end up with a 6-month-pregnant-looking belly (gut inflammation) and a lot of burning down there. The worst were white bread, bagels and pretzels.

AgaMe + My V

When I was doing a low carb diet I noticed a drastic improvement in my symptoms.

Lauren D.V Warrior

Some foods containing refined carbohydrates:

  • Breakfast cereals
  • Crackers
  • Flour tortillas
  • Pasta
  • Pizza
  • White bread, bagels, pretzels

#9 Caffeine and Caffeinated Drinks & Foods

The health effects of coffee and caffeine are quite controversial. Research shows that coffee can have pro- or anti-inflammatory effects depending on the individual39. Unfortunately, a lot of V Warriors have issues after consuming caffeinated drinks and foods ☕.

The caffeine in coffee is still a stimulant and when consumed in excess, it can also have negative effects on the body. Some of them include higher blood pressure, artery stiffness, and increased levels of homocysteine, insulin and possibly cholesterol. These are all things that relate to or directly affect inflammation40.

Additionally, if you are sensitive, coffee can irritate your bladder and digestive system. It can also contribute to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) as it alters motility in the gut (it makes you poop).

⚡ Issue

When it comes to inflammation, it also matters what you add to your cup of coffee. If you pour sugar, syrup or creamer into your cup of Joe, or if you just prefer coffee drinks (like flavored iced lattes), then you might experience problems not so much due to the coffee itself.

Some foods containing caffeine:

  • Cocoa products like chocolate, candy bars
  • Coffee and decaf coffee
  • Energy drink
  • Ice cream
  • Pain relievers
  • Teas
  • Sodas
  • Weight-loss pills
  • Pain relievers

#10 Fill in the Blank

Every single body is unique and can react differently to each and every type of food. So this place is meant for you to fill in with the food you are allergic or sensitive to.

While allergies might be easier to spot, you might be sensitive to certain foods and don’t even know about it as symptoms of food sensitivities and intolerances may take longer to manifest (even up to 72 hours). Because of this, when symptoms finally appear, you may brush them off as common minor ailments such as tiredness and headaches. But guess what, vulvar pain can be one of the symptoms too.

Also, long-term and repeated exposure to foods that irritate you can cause inflammation and lead again to vulvar pain.

Conclusion

When navigating the vulvodynia-food connection please remember that each person’s vulvodynia is different and can stem from different causes. The only common factor that all vulvodynia cases have in common is the fact that pain appears in the vulva. Therefore, food can but doesn’t have to be the culprit of your pain.

Also, this list of foods isn’t a comprehensive one. The examples I’ve shared above are the most problematic foods pointed out by V Warriors (including me). There will be other foods that you might find troublesome.

Is there anything else you would like to know about inflammatory foods? What has your experience been like with inflammatory foods? Have you come across other problematic ingredients during your journey?

Please feel free to share with me your thoughts, experiences, and questions via Instagram or Facebook. You can also reach me via the Contact Form or by email (at hello@meandmyv.com).

Disclaimer

My goal is to provide you with the most relevant and current information that is factually correct, comprehensive and up-to-date.

Please bear in mind that this article should not be used as a substitute for the knowledge and expertise of a doctor or other licensed healthcare professionals.

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10 Inflammatory Foods That Can Cause Vulvodynia

time to read: 19 min