PMS, menstrual cramps, sore breasts, and hormonal breakouts are just some of the not-so-fun things women have to deal with every month. For women with endometriosis, however, the struggle is even more intense. Not only is the condition extremely painful, but it’s also a common cause of infertility.
Since one in 10 women are affected by endometriosis in the United States and many go undiagnosed, it’s important to educate yourself on the topic and take your reproductive health into your own hands. To help empower us, we asked a couple of experts all our pressing questions. Below, learn what endometriosis is, symptoms to look out for, how it’s diagnosed, and what you can do to treat it.
What is endometriosis?
“Endometriosis is an estrogen-dependent condition that occurs when the cells lining the uterus grow outside of the uterus in places it shouldn’t, such as the ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder, or bowel wall,” says Stephanie Paver, integrative and functional registered dietitian nutritionist.
“It is thought that the disease lays down when you are in utero and then becomes hormonally reactive with menstruation,” adds Dr. Sallie Sarrel, pelvic physical therapist and owner of the Endometriosis Summit. “It is not because period blood cannot escape your body. That is an antiquated and inaccurate theory called retrograde menstruation.”
What are some signs and symptoms?
The biggest sign and symptom of endometriosis is chronic pelvic pain. “If pain during your periods causes you to miss out on school, career, or social participation, it could be endometriosis,” Dr. Sarrel says. She adds that other possible symptoms include painful sex, irritable bowel syndrome, back pain, fatigue, muscle aches, and infertility.
What causes endometriosis?
If other women in your family have endometriosis, you’re more likely to get it too. “Endometriosis has a strong genetic component,” Paver says. “It’s also related to low progesterone and/or elevated estrogen. Exposure to environmental toxins, such as phthalates, known as endocrine disruptors, may also play a role.”
Are there ways to prevent it?
The short answer: No. It’s not preventable. “Endometriosis is laid down when you are in utero,” Dr. Sarrel says. You can, however, undergo excision surgery to cut the disease out at its root or use pelvic physical therapy and diet changes to manage symptoms.
How is it diagnosed?
If you have a suspicion that you may have endometriosis, go see your doctor as soon as possible. To diagnose you with the condition, Paver tells us you’ll have to go through a surgical procedure called laparoscopy during which the doctor will insert a small camera to see if endometrial tissue is indeed growing outside of the uterus.
How is endometriosis treated?
Once you are diagnosed with endometriosis, Paver says treatment usually includes taking synthetic progesterone or birth control or perhaps even surgical intervention. If you want to go a more natural route, however, changing up your diet and taking supplements can also be very helpful.
“More research is linking endometriosis to inflammation and emerging research using natural anti-inflammatory foods and supplements is promising,” Paver says. “A natural supplement called N-acetylcysteine (NAC) was shown to be effective in reducing the size of endometriomas (cysts), reducing pain, and improving pregnancy rates in one study.”
Going gluten-free might also help, Paver says, adding that a study found 75% of subjects reported improvement in pain once they cut out gluten. All that said, be sure to talk to your doctor first to find the best plan of action for you.
Whatever treatment you follow, Paver strongly advises eliminating as many environmental toxins from your life as possible. That includes things like plastic wrap, plastic containers, and metal cans. “These items are manufactured with phthalate esters and constant exposure can cause accumulation in tissues and lead to endocrine issues,” she says.
Consider this a friendly reminder to be more aware of what harmful chemicals are in the products that you use and opt for more natural alternatives. Switching to natural, organic tampons, liners, and pads is also a good place to start.