A Womb Of One's Own
Noninvasive ways to clear your body of uterine fibroids
By Linda Knittel
Photos by Rod Walker
Uterine fibroids may be called benign tumors, but there is nothing harmless about a lemon- or melon-sized growth in the uterus. According to some estimates, these unwanted tumors affect up to 40 percent of the U.S. female population. And despite the fact that less than one-half of 1 percent of all uterine fibroids become cancerous, they are more than capable of wreaking havoc in a woman's body, causing pain, heavy bleeding and infertility.
The exact cause of such muscle tissue growths is uncertain, although they appear to be a product of environmental and hereditary factors. High concentrations of estrogen contribute to these growths, as does an imbalance between estrogen and its partner, progesterone. "The hormonal fluctuations that occur in a woman's body are very powerful," says Regina Lellman, a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist from the Natural Childbirth and Family Clinic in Portland, Ore. "They can produce all kinds of health situations."
Fortunately, alternative practitioners have discovered that by reducing estrogen levels and boosting concentrations of progesterone—by way of supplements and nutritional regimens—women can diminish the progression and symptoms of fibroids. By keeping these growths in check, many women are then able to avoid more invasive action such as surgical fibroid removal or a full hysterectomy.
Fending Off Fibroids
Identifying the existence of fibroids is the first step in addressing the problem. This can be confusing, since many of the warning signs—heavy bleeding, painful menstrual cramps, abdominal bloating—are common PMS symptoms and are therefore often ignored until growths have become substantial in size and debilitating in nature. It's critical for women to have regular pelvic exams and to keep track of monthly cycles, notifying a health practitioner if any changes occur.
Keeping a watchful eye for fibroids may be easier than preventing them, since clear-cut risk factors are scarce. Certainly obesity, diabetes, stress, smoking and a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to fibroid occurrence, but the truth is, fibroids regularly strike even the healthiest of women. This does not mean, however, that preventive measures do not exist. In fact, one of the best ways to minimize your chance of developing fibroids is simply to reduce the amount of extra estrogen you allow into your body.
External sources of estrogen—known as xenoestrogens—are more prevalent than you might think. Most birth control pills and menopausal hormone replacement supplements work by raising estrogen levels. Alarmingly, byproducts of the plastic and pesticide industries—called organochlorines—are one of the largest sources of xenoestrogens. These compounds, also used in dry cleaning, the bleaching of feminine hygiene products and the manufacture of plastics ranging from yogurt containers to baby bottles, have been shown to exert hormone-disrupting effects. What's more, organochlorines are known to accumulate in fatty human tissue and fluid such as breasts and breast milk. Caution dictates that women should try to eliminate these external estrogen sources through diet, supplements and lifestyle changes.
Watch What You Eat
Avoiding foods that exert an estrogenic effect is crucial to reducing a woman's estrogen levels, says Lellman. Key culprits include commercially produced meats, eggs and dairy products, which often contain hormones. "American women have more female health issues than other cultures who eat 'closer to the earth,'" says Susan Lark, MD, author of Fibroid Tumors and Endometriosis (Celestial Arts, 1995). "Women eating a diet that is centered on legumes, seeds and grains have lower circulating estrogen levels, and therefore fewer problems." A primarily vegetarian diet full of green leafy vegetables and liver-cleansing foods like artichokes and black radishes will not only cleanse the body but will also help regulate hormone levels.
Similarly, alcohol, caffeine, saturated fats, white sugar and tobacco should be avoided because of their ability to prevent the liver from efficiently processing estrogen and progesterone out of the body, enabling these hormones to actually feed fibroids. To improve overall liver function, "one or two days a month a woman with fibroids should do a modest fast, during which she eats only brown rice and steamed vegetables and drinks fruit juices in order to keep her body cleansed," says Lellman.
A few key supplements can also help relieve some of the symptoms of fibroids. For example, bioflavonoids, particularly abundant in berries, citrus fruits and deeply colored fruits and vegetables, can neutralize some problem-causing estrogens by providing mild phytoestrogens that bind to the same receptors. You might also consider supplements of fiber and B vitamins, which work to reduce circulating estrogen levels; vitamin C to ease cramps and lessen bleeding; and iron to help keep anemia at bay. A trained herbalist can also recommend a number of herbs that have been shown to exert positive effects. Because such remedies can become toxic if used incorrectly, it is best to work with a health practitioner to design a treatment regimen and proper dosages that will address your specific hormone profile.
Of course, there are times when diet, supplements and herbs may not be enough. "Fibroids can be tricky if they are larger than 5 centimeters, because at that point no matter what you do, they are not going to shrink on their own volition," says Lellman. Cases of conjunculated fibroids—tumors on stalks—are also dangerous because they can twist on the stalk, cutting off their own blood supply. When this occurs, the fibroid may become toxic and can potentially poison the victim. "When this type of tumor exists, or when a woman is at risk for anemia due to heavy bleeding, more aggressive approaches should be considered," advises Lellman.
For most women, lowering circulating estrogen levels, promoting regular ovulation and increasing healthy liver function is enough to keep uterine fibroids in check. And once women move through perimenopause into menopause, their estrogen levels will drop naturally, explains Lark. "At that point the tumors tend to shrink and become less active because there is not enough estrogen to keep them growing and bleeding," she says.
There are a variety of natural approaches that women with uterine fibroids may choose before resorting to invasive treatments. It's important, however, to select a treatment regimen with the help of a health practitioner who is regularly checking the size and nature of existing growths. "Sometimes treatments will make tumors shrink, and sometimes they will actually make them grow," warns Lellman. Since fibroids can hide other kinds of uterine tumors, as well as cause infertility and anemia, it is imperative that women become more conscious of their bodies and take responsibility for their overall health—inside and out.
Linda Knittel, a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore., is a former senior editor of Delicious Living and the co-author of The Soy Sensation (McGraw Hill, 2001).