Eating to Ease Endometriosis

We’ve all heard it before: you are what you eat. This statement couldn’t be truer for women who have endometriosis (also known as endo), an often-painful condition that causes cells that mimic uterine cells to grow outside the uterus. Between toxins that mimic estrogen hormones and foods that contain hormones, it’s difficult for women to avoid sources of external hormones, or more specifically, excess estrogen. Excess estrogen has been widely blamed for many of the endometriosis symptoms women experience. But don’t despair. You can use “’endo-friendly foods” to reduce your intake of estrogen and ease your symptoms.

Here are our top five endo diet tips:

1. Phyting Back

While the medical community has yet to pinpoint an exact cause for endometriosis, it’s widely accepted that excess estrogen can either cause or worsen endo symptoms. This excess estrogen comes in many forms: foods such as meats and cheeses, phthalates in skincare products, PCBs from plastics like water bottles, and dioxin, a toxin commonly found in drinking water. These harmful external estrogens are called xenoestrogens. When absorbed into the body, xenoestrogens alter the balance of our bodies’ natural hormones, which can result in many of the endometriosis symptoms experienced by women.

Just as some foods sources can cause endo symptoms, some foods can help fight back. These foods are called phytoestrogens. They also mimic the body’s natural estrogen hormone but are only half as strong.  The body recognizes phytoestrogens as a source of estrogen and will therefore reduce estrogen production. When the counterbalancing hormone progesterone comes in line with estrogen levels, the bothersome symptoms decrease. Food sources for phytoestrogens are soy, flaxseeds, legumes and whole grains, but if you’re on a gluten free diet, you should avoid whole grains altogether.

2. Fabulous Fats

The root causes of endo symptoms are related to inflammation. While inflammation is a crucial part of our immune system and is necessary for short-term use to repair an injury, long-term inflammation will cause a lot of the uncomfortable endo symptoms such as pain and discomfort. The types of fat we eat influence the level of inflammation. There are good fats, like our omega 3s, which have an anti-inflammatory effect, and there are bad fats. The bad ones are trans fats, as well as fats found in meat and dairy. Ultimately we want to maximize good fats in our diet and remove the bad fats.

Dr. Joseph Steyr, our naturopathic doctor, recommends that his patients douse their veggies in lots of cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil every day. As a side benefit, the fat in olive oil helps you absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A and K in the vegetables. As a bonus, your skin will have a healthy glow. Taking a high-quality fish oil supplement is another way to increase your intake of good fats. Now that you’re eating some healthy fats, you can move on to eliminating the unhealthy ones. While we understand how hard it is to cut down on yummy cheese, research shows there is a connection between endo and a diet high in bad fats.[1][2]

3. Canning Candidiasis

Candida Albicans is a strain of yeast that resides in the small intestine and the female reproductive tract. It lives in balance with other microbes that aid in our digestive process. Candidiasis occurs when there is an overgrowth in the yeast that outpaces the other microbe populations. Many factors can lead to this overgrowth such as frequent antibiotic use, the high carbohydrate Standard American Diet, long-term use of the birth control pill, reduced immunity, nutrient deficiencies and others. The Candida overgrowth can worsen endo symptoms because the yeast releases toxins that interfere with estrogen balances in the body and cause a number of other problems too. In fact, more often than not, Endo and Candida seem to be found together.

While there are many online questionnaires to help self-diagnose candidiasis, a trained healthcare practitioner such as a naturopathic doctor or a holistic nutritionist can both assess your health and help you find the right treatment to can that candida. Dietary protocol is part of any treatment plan and you can implement your own candida diet by reducing your intake of carbohydrates, and avoiding gluten and dairy. The sugar from simple carbohydrates, gluten and dairy are foods favoured by candida. When you eliminate these food sources, you essentially starve the candida.

4. Valuable Veggies

Having a diet high in vegetables is one of the best things a woman with endo can do. While a daily dose of fresh veggies is good for everyone, it is especially important for women with endo. First, veggies are a source of fibre, necessary for healthy, regular bowel movements. Soluble fibre will bind to things like excess estrogen and cholesterol in our bodies. Insoluble fibre forms the bulk of our stool and has been likened to a broom that helps to sweep wastes out of our bodies. By eliminating excess estrogen and preventing it from circulating in our bodies and stimulating the endo implants, women can experience fewer endo symptoms.

Second, veggies are a great source of nutrients.  As we mentioned in tip number two, combining a healthy fat with your veggie intake is a great way to bring out the value in your vegetables by helping your body better absorb fat-soluble vitamins. Nutrients such as vitamins and minerals are important for many functions in the body, such as supporting our immune system. Research has found that for women with endo, protective mechanisms in food sources may not just be related to nutrients alone, but to the other components or factors in the nutrient-rich foods.[3]

5. Giving up the Gluten

Gluten is the “glue” that holds things together in all our delicious breads and baked goods. It’s a protein composite found in grains that helps with shape and elasticity in foods. If you’ve ever experimented with gluten-free baked goods, you’ll notice they fall apart easier than regular baked goods. Don’t worry, this gets better with practice. Some people have difficulty digesting gluten and their body mounts an immune response when they eat it, causing a host of symptoms. Health practitioners notice gluten sensitivity more and more in women with endo. In fact, a study following women with endo on a gluten-free diet reported that symptoms were reduced after adhering to the diet for a year.[4]

By reducing any and all food sensitivities and allergies, and combining tips one through four in this article, a woman is likely to see a great reduction in endo symptoms. How does this happen? While we can only control our exposure to xenoestrogens so much, our diet is something in our control that can be easily modified. By reducing sources of inflammation, reducing excess estrogens with increased fibre, and avoiding candida-feeding foods like simple sugars, you can significantly reduce factors that aggravate endo symptoms.

Dr. Joseph Steyr, ND, is a Naturopathic Doctor with a focus on endocrinology (hormones). He brings a blend of conventional medical sciences and traditional health philosophies into his practice, which allows him to see a person’s health from multiple points of view. Michelle Heighington, B.A., RNCP ROHP, is a registered holistic nutritionist with over eight years of specialized experience helping clients take a holistic approach to maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle.

[1] Hudson, Tori. (2008) Women’s Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. (McGraw Hill: New York).

[2] Novembri, Romina et al. (2011) “Omega 3 fatty acids counteract IL-8 and Prostaglandin E2 secretion induced by TNF-A in cultured endometrial stromal cells” Journal of Endometriosis. 3(1): 34-39.

[3] Darling, Anne Marie et al. (2013) “A prospective cohort study of vitamins B, C, E and multivitamin intake and Endometriosis” Journal of Endometriosis. 5(1):17-26.

[4] Marziali M., et al. (2012) “Gluten-free diet: a new strategy for management of painful endometriosis related symptoms?” Minerva Chir. 67(6): 499-504.