What a mysterious process! For some reason, the tissue that lines a woman’s uterus begins to migrate and grow in other areas within the abdomen while still behaving like uterine tissue. That means that other internal organs may have an island of tissue that swells and sheds blood every month. Since that foreign tissue is not supposed to be there, and your organs don’t know how to handle its strange behavior, you may begin to feel a lot of pain.
This is what doctors call endometriosis. It affects an estimated 10 to 15 percent of all premenopausal women.
Hormone therapies and surgery are the favored treatments in conventional medicine. If you have endometriosis, you should work with a doctor to help manage it. There aren’t any known cures. There are, however, a number of ways to help relieve the pain and influence the hormonal balance that plays an important part in the condition, according to naturopathic doctors.
Getting your diet in order can be a big step. First, cut down on foods that might be increasing your estrogen levels, says Barbara Silbert, D.C., N.D., a chiropractor and naturopathic doctor in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and president of the Massachusetts Society of Naturopathic Physicians. Commercially raised animals are often given hormones for more robust growth and milk production, so if you eat meat or dairy products, you might be absorbing extra estrogen. Another possible concern with meat is that foods that are high in saturated fat have a tendency to make estrogen more available to the body.
Phase out meat and dairy products in favor of soy foods (tofu, tempeh, miso, and soy milk) and fiber-rich foods, says Dr. Silbert. Soy contains phytoestrogens, compounds that help regulate estrogen levels. Fiber makes stools firm and easy to pass, which is especially important if endometrial tissue is encroaching on the bowel area.
She also recommends regular exercise—at least 30 minutes three times a week—to help relieve the pain and cramping associated with endometriosis. With exercise, you step up production of endorphins, your body’s natural pain blockers.
Then there are supplements. "Because endometriosis is a complex thing to deal with," says Dr. Silbert, "I always use a combination of herbs, vitamins, and minerals." It may take a few months for supplements to work, but there are many to try. She cautions, however, that you need to get a proper diagnosis and then work with your doctor to see if supplements are right for you.
Some supplements can lower estrogen levels by helping you excrete it. Others can help your liver and kidneys flush out as much as possible, which may help you control endometriosis. Still others can help relieve the pain. Here’s what experts recommennd.
*Three Estrogen Reducers *
"In order to get endometriosis under control, you have to reduce the amount of estrogen in your body," says Jennifer Brett, N.D., a naturopathic doctor at the Wilton Naturopathic Center in Stratford, Connecticut. The herbs red clover and black cohosh and genistein, a supplement derived from soybeans, can help your body excrete estrogen.
These three supplements are phytoestrogens, or plant forms of estrogen. They bind with estrogen receptor sites, which are like dedicated landing sites on your cells. These sites would normally be occupied by your body’s much stronger estrogen, but when plant estrogens start to hog the sites, your estrogen has no place to go and ends up being excreted, says Dr. Brett. "That’s exactly what you want to happen with endometriosis."
If you reduce the amount of estrogen circulating in your body, you’ll probably also reduce the pain of endometriosis, says Dr. Brett.
When taking red clover or black cohosh, follow the directions on the package. Label directions on one brand of red clover supplements call for two 430-milligram capsules three times a day. A typical black cohosh brand recommends one 540-milligram capsule three times a day. Black cohosh is particularly effective at relieving cramps, notes Dr. Brett.
You can get genistein by taking a supplement of mixed soy isoflavones according to the directions on the label. A typical dose is one 540-milligram capsule a day.
*Flush Out Toxins *
The other strategy to take with endometriosis is to get your body working to flush out as much estrogen as it can, says Dr. Brett. In the case of endometriosis, estrogen could be considered a toxin. Your body has too much of it and it’s causing harm.
Having a body full of toxins is like having a full vacuum cleaner bag, observes Dr. Silbert. To empty the bag, you need to help the liver and kidneys function at peak capacity, since they’re the organs that do most of the cleaning up and cleaning out. Supplements can help keep them working at their best. "Your body works a whole lot better when there aren’t so many toxins clogging up the works," she says.
Magnesium is an all-purpose toxin flusher. One of its jobs is to transmit fluids to and from cells, your bloodstream and lymphatic system (whose primary job is immunity), and your tissues. The Daily Value for magnesium is 400 milligrams. In supplement form, 350 milligrams should be effective when taken in combination with other supplements that also help to flush out estrogen and toxins, says Dr. Silbert.
*B_6 and Milk Thistle *
You may also want to consider taking vitamin B_6 and the herb milk thistle. Both will help the liver break down and dispose of excess estrogen, says Dr. Brett. Studies have shown that when you supplement with B vitamins, you also help relieve other ailments associated with having too much estrogen, such as premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
Try taking 50 milligrams of vitamin B_6 twice a day, says Dr. Silbert. Because some women’s bodies have trouble metabolizing this vitamin in its standard form, she recommends taking pyridoxal-5-phosphate (P5P). This is the activated form of vitamin B_6 that everyone’s body can handle. If you take 50 milligrams of P5P twice a day, you’ll get the equivalent of the same dose of vitamin B6 .
When you’re taking milk thistle, follow the dosage directions on the package, typically one or two 150-milligram capsules three times daily.
Yarrow Restores Hormone Balance
Throughout history, yarrow has been used to stop bleeding, get rid of urinary tract infections, relieve digestive troubles, and ease the symptoms of female ailments. According to Greek mythology, Achilles packed yarrow into the wounds of soldiers 3,000 years ago in the Trojan War, using the only herbal on hand to stanch the bleeding of his fallen men.
Yarrow contains more than 120 compounds. One of these, azulene, is an effective anti-inflammatory and fever reducer.
Yarrow is also used to stimulate the liver so it does a better job of flushing out body wastes, and this is the function that’s helpful if you have endometriosis and need to flush excess estrogen, says Jennifer Brett, N.D., a naturopathic doctor at the Wilton Naturopathic Center in Stratford, Connecticut. Because yarrow also helps to balance hormones, it’s often prescribed by herbalists to treat heavy menstrual bleeding, fibroid tumors, and menopausal hot flashes.
Yarrow has antispasmodic properties that help relax muscles that cramp or contract, so it can ease your uterine and abdominal muscles.
Yarrow capsules are available in drugstores and health food stores. It’s not recommended if you’re pregnant, however.
*Other Factors *
Lipotropic factors are another supplement that will help your liver excrete toxins, says Dr. Silbert. The lipotropic factors choline (a component of lecithin), inositol, and methionine enhance liver function and chemical reactions that promote detoxification. In general, they work to unclog the liver so it can do its job better, she says.
Look in health food stores for a product labeled lipotropic factors and select the one that contains the closest ratio of the three factors. Check the label for directions. The labels on most brands recommend three capsules a day for a total dosage of 1,000 milligrams of choline, 1,000 milligrams of inositol, and 300 milligrams of methionine daily.
To make sure that your kidneys are doing their share of the work, drink plenty of water—at least eight full eight-ounce glasses every day, advises Dr. Brett. And she recommends the herb yarrow. Not only will it help get your kidneys in prime working order, it may also ease the painful cramps that can accompany endometriosis. Dr. Brett advises following directions on the package. A typical dose is two or three capsules of between 250 and 350 milligrams taken twice a day.
*Feel Better with Evening Primrose Oil *
A natural anti-inflammatory, evening primrose oil can help reduce the pain of endometriosis, and is especially helpful with cramping, says Dr. Brett.
Traditionally, evening primrose oil has been used by herbalists and naturopathic doctors to help relieve symptoms of a wide range of women’s ailments. Often recommended by naturopaths to relieve PMS and deal with menopausal discomforts, it can also work well if you’re troubled by endometriosis.