March is Endometriosis Awareness Month. Endometriosis is an extremely painful disorder where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus (the endometrium) grows outside of the womb. It most commonly spreads to the bowel, tissues lining the pelvis, fallopian tubes and ovaries and affects 1 in 10 women. Many women struggle to get a diagnosis so if you are suffering with very heavy or painful periods and have been dismissed by your doctor or gynecologist, get a second opinion. Don’t be fobbed off!
Signs & Symptoms
The main sign or symptom of endometriosis is pain, with 79% of sufferers experiencing heavy and painful periods. It is one of the main causes of infertility and can make intercourse extremely uncomfortable, which doesn’t help when trying to make a baby!
There is no correlation between pain levels and severity of the disease. Women may have a mild form of the disease and experience excruciating pain or have a severe form and experience only a little discomfort.
Other symptoms include painful bowel movements or urination and back pain during menstruation. Constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, feeling sick and exhaustion are other common signs of this disorder.
Although the pathology is not well understood, it is believed that causes include inflammation, hormone imbalance and autoimmune response. Diet is thought to play a major role, with a diet high in sugar and processed foods often driving inflammation.
The medical approach to treating endometriosis is usually surgery, but lesions often return within a few years, or the oral contraceptive pill, which may temporarily alleviate symptoms but does not tackle the root cause. Sufferers often rely heavily on ibuprofen and paracetamol, which may provide temporary relief, but come with their own issues such as damage to the gut lining from chronic use, and depletion of essential nutrients. If all else fails and the woman already has a family, a hysterectomy may be performed.
A natural approach to healing includes an anti-inflammatory diet, balancing hormones and avoiding chemicals known as xenoestrogens.
Studies have shown that a diet high in fruit and vegetable and low in meat products was protective against developing endometriosis. Interestingly, women with fewer children and a low BMI were shown to be more likely to develop the disease. One small study of 107 women reported a 75% decrease in pain after removing gluten from their diet.
Although further research is needed to determine which food and lifestyles correlate with the development of the condition, it has been found that the following factors may have a negative impact on endometriosis by influencing oestrogen balance:
- A diet high in refined foods and sugar
- Red meat
- Trans fats
Foods that may have a positive, anti-inflammatory effect on the body include:
- Foods containing fibre such as vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes and wholegrains.
- Colourful fruit and veg, rich in protective antioxidants and polyphenols. Eat the rainbow!
- Essential fatty acids containing foods such as oily fish (SMASH; salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring). Vegetable sources include chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds, walnuts and Brussels sprouts.
- Foods rich in iron such as cruciferous and dark green leafy vegetables. Sources include broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cavolo nero and spinach. These veg contain a compound called indole-3-carbinol, which has been shown to help with detoxification of oestrogens.
- Calcium and magnesium containing foods such as dark green leafy vegetables and nuts and seeds may also help.
Although it may seem counterproductive to exercise with endometriosis, movement can, in fact, play a key role in managing the condition. Endorphins released during exercise are anti-inflammatory and can help to relieve pain. Exercise may help to relieve back pain common to sufferers as well as promoting sleep. It is believed that endometriosis is driven by oestrogen, and exercise has been shown to lower levels in the body. Always listen to your body, however. Over exercising may exacerbate symptoms. If you are new to exercise or have recently been diagnosed, it would be advisable to initially work with a professional and consult your GP.
Other lifestyle factors to consider are:
- Stress management: high levels of cortisol can disrupt the endocrine system and gut microbiome. Mindfulness, yoga, 4-7 breathing or Epsom salt baths may help.
- Environmental toxins; these are chemicals which may disrupt our hormones, particularly oestrogen. They can be found in non-organic foods, skincare, cleaning products, non-stick coatings on pans and in plastics.
The scientific evidence on natural approaches to managing endometriosis is scarce at present but adopting a healthy lifestyle with good nutrition, regular movement, 7- 9 hours’ sleep a night and avoiding environmental toxins where possible can only have a positive impact on your life. This may be hard to implement on your own. Let me know if I can help.