If you’ve been diagnosed with endometriosis the experience of lockdown may not be entirely unfamiliar. This condition can be incredibly debilitating, so much so that that some aren’t able to get out of bed, walk or travel to work for several days each month.
Altered habits while in lockdown may create a perfect storm for an endometriosis flare-up which isn’t ideal during a time when medical treatments are being cancelled or delayed. Recent research has shown that we are consuming more comfort food and alcohol while exercising and sleeping less at the moment. Unfortunately, if you suffer from endometriosis, these changes to your lifestyle may also exacerbate inflammation and pain.
However, there seems to be no shortage of the beneficial foods and ingredients that nutritionists would normally recommend and there are plenty of lifestyle strategies you can use to manage your endometriosis at home.
What is Endometriosis?
Endometriosis is a condition in which endometrial tissue – the cells that normally line the uterus - start to grow outside of the womb onto the other organs inside the pelvic cavity. Under normal circumstances, endometrial tissue in the uterus grows thicker with the monthly cycle in preparation for pregnancy. If a fertilised egg does not implant into the uterine wall, the endometrial lining is shed as the menstrual period. However, as the body is not able to excrete this tissue it becomes trapped and starts to cause pain and inflammation.
The main symptoms are pelvic and back pain, painful intercourse and periods, infertility, bloating, fatigue, diarrhoea and nausea.
However, many women with endometriosis can have no symptoms at all.
The reason this happens is not fully understood but we do know that 1 in 10 women suffer from it. It’s one of the most common causes of infertility, with up to 40% of women with endometriosis experiencing fertility problems. The only way to diagnose it is via a laparoscopy, which is an operation done under general anaesthetic.
How is endometriosis treated?
The current medical treatments available are mainly hormonal drugs to stop bleeding, painkillers to treat the pain and surgery. Drugs can help manage the symptoms but may cause other side effects and long-term use of painkillers risks damaging the gut lining. Removing endometrial tissue via laparoscopy can give temporary relief but symptoms do tend to return within about 2 years for most women. None of these treatment options deals with the root cause of the problem.
Natural ways to treat Endometriosis
It’s not known what causes endometriosis, but we do know that inflammation is involved as it’s a condition characterised by pain. We also know there is some form of immune dysfunction at play and the condition is triggered by hormonal changes throughout the monthly cycle. This is why I focus on supporting these key areas through an anti-inflammatory and hormone balancing diet and lifestyle when working with women who have endometriosis.
What is an anti-inflammatory diet?
An anti-inflammatory diet helps reduce the pain associated with endometriosis while supporting the immune system and promoting hormonal balance. What this means in practice is including plenty of the following in your diet:
- Anti-inflammatory fats from oily fish, olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados
- Eat a rainbow of colourful fruit and vegetables that provide important antioxidants and fibre
- Aim for 7-8 portions of vegetables and 1-2 portions of fruit each day if you can
It’s also important to minimise foods that can increase levels of inflammation and worsen symptoms of endometriosis:
- Red meat
- Refined carbohydrates
- Dairy foods
As well as the above, one of the most important things to consider is your exposure to xenoestrogens. These are environmental toxins that function as oestrogen hormones once inside the body. They can be much more potent than the hormones our body produces naturally.
Xenoestrogens are found in plastic food containers, bottles, cans, takeaway coffee cup lids and in the pesticides used on conventionally grown fruit and vegetables. They are also a by-product of conventional tampons and pads, as highly toxic dioxins are used during the bleaching process.
I highly recommend all women use natural, unbleached sanitary products or swap to something like a menstrual cup to avoid putting these chemicals near reproductive organs. Food is best kept in glass containers such as Pyrex dishes, old jam jars and bottles. Try to avoid drinking water from a plastic bottle and consider investing in a stainless steel one instead.
Lifestyle approaches to Endometriosis
During lockdown it’s tempting to reach for comfort food, a glass of wine or two and settle down to binge watch Netflix late into the night. Only to power ourselves with caffeine the next day. Some of us may forgo our usual exercise routine as we isolate safe inside the walls of our home or end up watching endless news reports - which invariably sends our stress levels soaring.
Unfortunately, stress and lack of sleep can create inflammation and exacerbate the symptoms of endometriosis. Stress reduction and sleep optimisation go hand in hand. Here are a few tips…
- Stick to a routine by going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. Don’t burn the candle just because you can, this can affect your melatonin levels. Melatonin is a sleep hormone but also is a powerful antioxidant which helps protect our ovaries.
- Sleep 7-8 hours each night. A lack of sleep can make us more likely to reach for unhelpful foods, disrupt hormonal balance and raise inflammation.
- Exercise outside. Exercise is a great de-stressor, mood lifter and also helps promote sleep. Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of brisk walking or gentle jogging each day.
- Avoid keeping a constant watch on the news reports and instead be selective about the information you take in. Limit to once a day and turn off alerts on your phone and desktop.
- Meditation and mindfulness practices can be incredibly beneficial for the purpose of improving sleep and reducing stress. There are many programs available online and my go-to apps are Headspace, Calm and Insight Timer. The key is to stay consistent.
It’s so tempting to let go of healthy living aspirations during these uncertain times but it’s more important than ever to look after our health right now. Addressing these food and lifestyle aspects is likely to have a beneficial effect not just on endometriosis but also other areas of your health and immune system.
Sandra Greenbank is a BANT Registered Nutritionist and Functional Medicine practitioner with over 10 years experience helping couples optimise their fertility naturally. She sees clients in her online clinic and also runs an online course for couples who are trying to conceive or preparing for IVF. For the duration of the UK lockdown period, Sandra is offering £100 off her online fertility course using the code LOCKDOWN. For more information about the course head to https://bit.ly/fertilityfoundations or alternatively, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.