By Dee Atkinson, FNIMH
Around 1.5 million women in the UK live with Endometriosis - a condition where cells, like the ones in the lining of the womb, spread to outside of the uterus and are found elsewhere in the body. Each month these cells behave in the same way as those in the womb, building up and then breaking down and bleeding but, unlike the cells in the womb which leave the body during menstruation, this blood cannot escape and stays within the body. As a result, women with this condition experience very heavy periods which can also be extremely painful and debilitating.
Endometriosis is an oestrogen dependant inflammatory disease that occurs in women of reproductive age and usually resolves with menopause. It can have a significant impact on a persons life, with symptoms including chronic pain, fatigues, lack of energy, pain, issues with conceiving and associated issues of low mood and struggling at work.
Managing endometriosis with herbal medicine alone can be difficult and a multidisciplinary approach is needed. Herbs to support oestrogen clearance, help with pain management and diet advice are the main routes that the herbal practitioner will explore.
This condition is not just about having a really bad period (as if that weren’t difficult enough) but can also cause infertility as well as bowel and bladder problems, not to mention the serious psychological and emotional stress that dealing with long term pain can cause.
Let's take a look at which herbs can provide gentle, natural help with this chronic condition:
It is vital to consider the liver when looking at Endometriosis. The lowering of oestrogen levels is extremely important with this condition and one of the liver’s main duties is to inactivate oestrogen. In other words, protecting and increasing liver function has to be a top priority so that it can break down oestrogen more effectively. The following herbs are particularly useful in supporting the liver as well as generally helping with Endometriosis:
Chinese Angelica (Angelica sinensis): (or dong quai) root has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries to treat liver problems. This herb also balances oestrogen and progesterone levels and, in the case of Endometriosis, lowers high oestrogen levels.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale): this humble flower is helpful for liver health.
Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum): silymarin, a complex found in milk thistle, increases protein production in liver cells and protects the liver against damage.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): helps the liver to metabolise the body’s hormones by acting as a peripheral vasodilator and may reduce blood congestion in the pelvis.
Slippery Elm (Ulmus fulva): use this herb to heal the gut membrane in cases of Endometriosis of the bowel.
The following herbs and plants are especially helpful as painkillers and you may already have some in your cupboard at home:
Turmeric (Curcuma longa): the active ingredient in this well known spice is curcumin, which is helpful in supporting management of inflammatory diseases. Curcumin and Boswellia capsules are also an excellent choice I often prescribe to patients.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita): this flower is well known for its soothing and calming effect as well as its anti-inflammatory properties. Endometriosis causes swelling and chamomile can help to lessen this as well as helping to flush out your bladder.
We all have chamomile teabags in our cupboard at home but I strongly advise using the whole dried flower for maximum effectiveness. You can keep a pot of chamomile tea steeping throughout the day and add hot water when needed
Ginger (Zingiber officinalis): is great for soothing nausea caused by Endometriosis as well as being effective in reducing inflammation, helping to relieve menstrual cramps and assisting the liver in eliminating excess toxins. It may also help in decongesting the pelvis and pulling more blood to the periphery of the body.
You can make a cup of soothing ginger tea by steeping a tablespoon of grated ginger in a small teapot for 8-10 minutes. Use a strainer to pour into a cup and add honey – preferably manuka honey which is also well known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Use throughout the day as needed.
Herbal practitioners will be able to blend more specific pain relief formulas that may include herbs such as Piscidia piscipula, Dioscoria villosa, Paeonia lactiflora, Scutillaria baicalensis and Scutillaria lateriflora.
The Role of Diet
Fibre is really important for Endometriosis patients as it maintains intestinal tract health and helps to get rid of excess oestrogen. Great sources of fibre include: green beans, cauliflower, fruits, broccoli and brussel sprouts.
You can boost your intake of fibre with psyllium husks – a great source of soluble dietary fibre, it enhances the beneficial bacteria that help with food absorption and digestion, not to mention immune system function. Take one teaspoon twice daily as part of a balanced diet or as directed by your herbalist. You can mix with fruit juice or water or just sprinkle it straight onto food. Always drink plenty of fluids afterwards.
As far as diet is concerned, nutritionist Dian Shepperson Mills, author of Endometriosis: A Key to Healing and Fertility through Nutrition, suggests B vitamins and fibre found in green vegetables like kale, watercress, cabbage, broccoli and sprouts are helpful in helping the body to deal with the breakdown of circulating oestrogens.
She also suggests eating Iron-rich foods as heavy bleeding associated with Endometriosis can deplete the body's iron supply.
You can get iron from high-quality organic meat, eggs and fish, as well as from green, leafy vegetables, beetroot, dried apricots and dark chocolate.
Omega-3 fatty acids
There have been hopeful results in studies originally published in the journal Health Reproduction, which found that women who ate the highest amounts of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids were nearly a quarter less likely to be diagnosed with Endometriosis.
Omega 3 has also been linked to diminished clotting in endometrial cells found in the uterus, which in turn, improves the implantation rates of fertilized eggs. Wild Alaskan salmon, oily fish such as sardines and anchovies, as well as a high quality krill oil supplement are all a good source of Omega 3.
Alcohol and Sugar
Avoid refined sugar and alcohol at all costs as these feed yeast (Candida) and may aggravate pain and promote tissue swelling.
In cases of Endometriosis, I strongly recommend consulting a qualified medical herbalist for this complex condition, not to be taken lightly.