Condition - Endometriosis Factfile
Once a medical rarity, endometriosis has become a fairly common condition, with up to 25% of women in their 30s and 40s suffering from the disease. Although some women experience no symptoms at all, for many the disease is characterised by severe menstrual cramps, pain during intercourse, chronic pelvic and lower back pain and heavy menstrual bleeding. In some cases, women even experience nausea, vomiting and irregular bowel movements.
Every month, the female body goes through a cycle of hormonal changes. These hormones cause the lining of the womb to thicken, in preparation for a fertilised egg. If a pregnancy does not occur, this lining breaks down and leaves the body as the monthly menstrual flow.
Endometriosis is a condition where cells like the ones lining the womb are found elsewhere in the body. These cells follow the hormonal cycle in the same way as the womb lining - thickening, then breaking down and bleeding. The problem is that, unlike the womb lining, the blood generated by the misplaced tissue has no way of leaving the body. This leads to inflammation and pain, and can result in the formation of scar tissue, which can interfere with fertility.
Endometriosis is most commonly found inside the pelvis, ovaries, fallopian tubes and on the outside the womb but it can also be found in remote areas such as the intestines, bladder or even the lungs. The cause of endometriosis in unknown, though a number of contributing factors are thought to play a role. These include:
Genetics - Endometriosis seems to run in families so scientists think there may be a genetic link.
Hormonal imbalances - The menstrual cycle is run by a delicate balance between the female sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone. Endometriosis is thought to be intensified by higher-than-normal oestrogen levels.
Toxin exposure - Certain toxins within the environment can mimic the action of oestrogen within the body. Research studies have shown that when animals were exposed to high levels of these contaminants they actually developed endometriosis.
Poor liver function - The liver regulates and removes oestrogen from the body and helps to eliminate toxins. If the function of the liver is compromised then hormones can become imbalanced and toxins accumulate.
Compromised immunity - Many women with endometriosis appear to have reduced immunity to other conditions and some scientists think that endometriosis may arise because the immune system doesn’t properly mop up the escaped womb cells.
Digestive imbalances - An overgrowth of Candida or bad bacteria within the gut can interfere with the removal of old hormones from the body, by chemically altering them so they can be reabsorbed. This puts extra pressure on the liver and contributes to hormone imbalances.
While genetics is somewhat pre-programmed, there are a number of natural options that can be incorporated, via diet and supplements, to help tackle the symptoms and underlying imbalances in endometriosis.
From a hormonal perspective, there is a family of substances found in plants called phyto-oestrogens, which can help to balance oestrogen levels within the body. The two best sources are fermented soya and ground flax seeds but other seeds and pulses; as well as oats, fennel and celery; also offer a fair supply. In addition, the plants agnus castus and wild yam have been used in natural medicine for hundreds of years, to support female hormonal health.
A further important factor is the liver, which needs a good supply of methionine, choline, inositol and B vitamins, in order to properly detoxify excess oestrogen. Foods from the Brassica family such as broccoli (especially broccoli sprouts!), cabbage and cauliflower can also aid this process.
It’s also a good idea to reduce alcohol and non-organic animal products within the diet, as these can raise oestrogen levels and clog up the liver, preventing it from doing its job properly.
Supporting the immune system with a good supply of vitamins A, C and E, along with selenium and zinc, is another key consideration. These should be used alongside a healthy diet, rich in fruits and vegetables. Top foods to eat to boost the immune system are berries, ginger, garlic, green tea, broccoli sprouts, oyster or shitake mushrooms and oregano.
When vitamin C is used in combination with bioflavonoids, such as rutin and diosmin, it can also aid in maintaining healthy blood vessels, a must for moderating menstrual flow. A good balance of calcium and magnesium is also essential to relax uterine muscles and prevent cramping. Magnesium is depleted very quickly during stress and calcium levels naturally drop in the run up to menstruation. For this reason, a regular top-up of calcium and magnesium can help to reduce deficiency risk and keep uterine muscles relaxed.
The pain that accompanies menstrual cramping is caused by the release of chemicals called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are made in the body from fatty acids. Some are inflammatory and others anti-inflammatory. The key is to favour the production of the beneficial prostaglandins, by ensuring the correct balance of fats within the diet. omega 3 and GLA (gamma linolenic acid) rich oils lead to positive prostaglandin production. The best sources of these are fish oil, flax seed oil, hemp seed oil and starflower oil. It is also important to decrease intake of those foods that stimulate bad prostaglandins production such as animal fats, sugar and processed foods. Antioxidants and certain enzymes can also help to reduce the production of less beneficial prostaglandins, as well as supporting the immune system and aiding healing. Good choices are astaxanthin and bromelain.
Finally, if endometriosis symptoms are accompanied by digestive discomfort then introducing probiotics to boost friendly bacteria levels along with a short course of natural antimicrobials such as oregano, garlic, cinnamon, octanoic acid or grapefruit seed extract may be helpful.
So the good news is that endometriosis can be managed! By taking a holistic approach to female health and supporting the body’s defence and detoxification mechanisms it’s possible to restore balance within the body and kick-start the healing process.