Endometriosis is a condition in which cells from the uterine lining (endometrium) break away and plant outside the uterus. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of women between 25 and 44 suffer from it. Symptoms can include premenstrual pain, menstrual cramps, low backache, painful sexual intercourse, mid-cycle bleeding and heavy or irregular periods. Fatigue is a problem for some, partly due to anemia caused by excessive menstrual blood loss. Endometriosis can scar the ovaries or fallopian tubes, causing infertility. Some women have no symptoms at all.
Endometrial tissue, whether inside or outside the uterus, responds to the monthly cycling of estrogen and progesterone. The thickened uterine lining tissue is released as menstrual blood each month. When endometrial tissue grows outside the uterus the ovaries, bladder, colon, cervix, appendix and even lungs endometrial blood remains in the body cavity.
There’s no obvious cause for endometriosis, but diet is a major risk factor. Other risk factors include a history of using estrogen-based medications such as oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy, environmental pollution, being childless, stress and genetics. “In all cases of endometriosis,” says naturopathic doctor Katie Data of Fife, Washington, “estrogen levels tend to be high.”
Endometriosis can be a difficult condition to treat. Natural treatment typically takes one to two months before a woman feels better and significant improvement may take as long as six months. Dr Data relies on a wide range of methods to help her patients.
Dietary changes come first. Sugar and alcohol should be avoided as these are estrogenic, feed yeast and may aggravate pain and promote tissue swelling. Food allergies can exacerbate symptoms. Animal fats tend to increase inflammation and may contain added estrogen that can worsen endometriosis, so a vegan diet is recommended. Dr Data runs blood tests to check thyroid function: hypothyroidism can also produce such symptoms as menstrual pain and heavy menstrual bleeding.
Herbal Pain Relief
Because endometriosis can be painful, choosing herbs that specifically address this and other symptoms is helpful.
Capsella bursa-pastoris or Shepherd’s purse may help with heavy menstrual bleeding. The white, purse-shaped flowers of this spindly plant provide medicinal relief, while the leaves are used as both medicine and food. It’s traditionally used as an astringent; choline and other amines found in this plant reduce bleeding by constricting blood vessels. Scientific evidence supports its role as a uterine tonic.
Herbs that reduce both pain and inflammation are equally important. Salicin, the aspirin-like compound found in herbs like meadowsweet and white willow bark, is one solution. The aromatic, cream-coloured flowers of meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) contain salicin and other agents that reduce pain. Unlike aspirin, meadowsweet does not contribute to peptic ulcers but instead has a reputation for easing ulcers, gastritis and other intestinal complaints.
In addition to calming symptoms, using herbs to diminish estrogen’s effects particularly on endometrial tissue outside the womb may reduce inflammation. One example is Angelica sinensis (also known as dong quai or Chinese angelica). Dong quai balances estrogen and progesterone levels, lowering estrogen when it’s too high, as in endometriosis, and balancing overall hormone levels during menopause. Traditional Chinese medicine has relied on this plant for thousands of years to aid women’s health and treat liver problems.
Other phyto-estrogenic herbs used for endometriosis include black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), red clover (Trifolium pratense) and soybean.
Don’t Forget the Liver
Any successful endometriosis program addresses liver health. Among its many duties, the liver is responsible for inactivating estrogen. Both protecting and increasing the function of this important organ helps it break down estrogen more effectively. This in turn lowers estrogen levels, a major goal when treating endometriosis.
Studies suggest that silymarin, a complex found in milk thistle (Silybum marianum), and its active constituent, silybin, work as antioxidants, stabilize mast cells in the liver, increase protein production in liver cells and protect the liver against damage.
Other herbs known to enhance liver function are dandelion (Taracum officinale) and artichoke leaves (Cynara scolymus). Eating certain foods make for a healthier liver too. These include beets, carrots, lemons, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, onions and garlic.