An estimated 89 million women and girls worldwide have endometriosis ("endo" for short) and while it affects women primarily in their reproductive years, problems associated with endometriosis can affect girls before their first periods and women long after menopause.
With endometriosis, tissue that is found inside the uterus is found outside the uterus, in other areas of the body often causing severe pain, heavy or irregular bleeding, infertility and a host of other symptoms. There is no known cure and existing treatments have varying degrees of success. Its not surprising that women with endo seek nutritional approaches that might help manage some of the disease symptoms. Many of them report benefits from improved general nutrition and from nutritional approaches tailored to endo. In a survey of Endometriosis Association members, "change in diet" was reported as one of the most effective alternative approaches, far more effective than traditional surgery and medical treatments.
Unfortunately, there is no single effective nutritional approach for endometriosis. Each person is unique and the best way to start is to evaluate your current health and lifestyle habits with a knowledgeable health professional. You can get help through the Endometriosis Association. There are some specific nutritional strategies that seem to decrease inflammation, relieve pain and help control estrogen levels all of which might be relevant to women with endo. Approaches that seek to produce anti-inflammatory actions often target prostaglandins. These are hormone-like substances found in many of the body's tissues that can influence dysmenorrhea (menstrual pain and related symptoms) and endometriosis. Seed and nut oils are among good sources to increase levels of the "good" prostaglandins.
Another approach to managing endo symptoms is to try to lower estrogen levels in the body through diet, mainly by adopting a more vegetarian diet which naturally reduces growth hormones contained in conventionally produced meat. B complex vitamins, particularly B6, are almost always recommended in diets for endo because of their role in lowering estrogen levels. The body is easily depleted of B vitamins by the overconsumption of refined carbohydrates like sugar and white bread, alcohol, tea and coffee as well as exposure to antibiotics and stress.
Another possible approach to lowering estrogen levels is lowering body fat content in general, since fat cells are a source of estrogen in the body, and obese women have been found to have higher estrogen levels than lean women. Because food allergies are common in endo, it is important to be tested and adapt your diet to exclude any foods to which you are allergic. While this, too, is very individualized, there are some food allergies common to women with endo-the most significant of which is yeast (Candida albicans).
Toxins, of course, pose a serious threat to all of us and its generally accepted that the greatest source of toxins in our bodies is our food. For women with endo, this is of particular concern because of the research linking toxins such as dioxin to development of disease. Women with endo appear to be more sensitive to environmental toxins and therefore may need to take even greater care in avoiding them. This means eating as much organic fruits and vegetables as possible and avoiding foods known to contain pesticides and other toxic chemicals.
One key is eating a balanced diet to ensure adequate intake of vitamins and minerals. Supplements must be individualized based on your diet, genetics, medical conditions and other factors. While vitamin and mineral supplements can help provide the body with these necessary nutrients they cannot substitute for a nutritious diet that provides fiber and other components that supplements may lack. Making changes necessary to eat a healthy diet usually requires lifestyle changes which can be challenging. Once you begin to notice the positive effects of eating healthy foods though, the changes become self rewarding and easier to maintain.
No nutritional approach is likely to alleviate all endo symptoms totally or immediately. Most who espouse any nutritional approach, whether to lower estrogen levels, decrease inflammation, or for pain relief, recommend staying with the diet and supplements for at least four to six months. Some women who try nutritional approaches do report good results fairly quickly and almost all agree improving their diet definitely improves overall health.
Mary Lou Ballweg is author of the new book, Endometriosis: The Complete Reference For Taking Charge of Your Health (McGraw Hill, $17.95). She is the President/Executive Director of the Endometriosis Association (414-355-2200). For more information about the Association, the book, or other help, visit www.EndometriosisAssn.org