Uterine Fibroids and PCOS
One of the unfortunate realities of life in the 21st century is the increase in occurrence of chronic diseases. The increasing levels of stress associated with our modern lifestyle and environmental toxicity can impact our lives in many significant ways.
Of particular concern is the influence of these factors on the health of our nervous and endocrine systems. These systems work together to control and integrate the functioning of all other body systems. This is accomplished through neural signals and hormones released by endocrine glands. When these systems are under stress, it can disturb the delicate balance of hormones which will in turn affect functioning of every other organ and organ system. The more delicate the balance of hormones associated with the functioning of a particular system, the greater the degree to which that system will be affected.
Although these factors can affect men and women in similar ways, the reproductive system in women is particularly sensitive because of the delicate balance of reproductive hormones that are continuously changing in a cyclic pattern throughout the reproductive years. The balance of these hormones is easily disturbed by psychological and environmental stress factors. This can lead to symptoms such as PMS, dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramping), endometriosis, low fertility, and other reproductive imbalances.
Two of the most common reproductive conditions affecting a growing number of women are uterine fibroids and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Both of these conditions involve the growth of non-cancerous tissue in the wall of the uterus (in the case of fibroids), and in the ovaries (in the case of PCOS).
Uterine fibroids affect 20-40% of North American women, especially during the latter half of their reproductive years, between the ages of 30 and 50. PCOS affects 5 to 10% of women throughout their reproductive years. Although there is a genetic component to these conditions, they have been increasing in recent decades, so clearly there is more going on than genetics.
These conditions are associated with a variety of symptoms, some of which are common to both. On a hormonal level, development of fibroids tends to be associated with high levels of estrogen, whereas PCOS is associated with high levels of androgens. However, from a holistic perspective many factors can contribute to the development of these conditions and some of these factors can contribute to both. Their treatment will therefore involve changing as many of these factors as possible. Which factors are most important will vary depending on the person affected.
Reducing Stress to Improve Hormonal Health
Psychological stress has a profound effect on the functioning of our nervous and endocrine systems. Excessive levels of stress will inevitably lead to imbalances of the female reproductive hormones. When stressed, many people tend to hold tension in their abdominal region. This reduces blood flow to the uterus and ovaries, thereby interfering with their normal functioning.
Reducing stress can be difficult in a world where most of us no longer have defined work hours and even our friends and family expect us to be accessible 24/7. A great deal of stress can be reduced by adjusting our priorities and creating a lifestyle that allows us the space and time to rest and recuperate.
The flip side of the stress equation is learning how to deal with potentially stressful situations more effectively as stress mostly results from how we respond to situations rather than being inherent in the situations themselves. Our stress response is only partly genetic. It is mostly learned. Although it can be challenging to change a stress response that we have repeated for most of our lives, with the right tools and support it is possible to achieve.
Exercise helps to reduce stress and improve blood flow to the reproductive and endocrine glands. It also helps the body to eliminate toxicity. Other disciplines such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, and various stress management techniques can also be helpful both to reduce the effects of stress, and to help us change how we respond in stressful situations.
Nutritional Medicine for Prevention and Treatment
Over-consumption of stimulants has basically the same effect on our body as stress. It is therefore important to reduce consumption of coffee, tea, cola, and chocolate. As always, moderation is the key.
Other foods that should be reduced include sweets, red meats, dairy products, alcohol, processed foods, and bad fats such as deep fried foods and other sources of rancid, hydrogenated, and saturated fats and oils.
Anyone who has uterine fibroids, PCOS, or other reproductive conditions should also avoid taking birth control pills and instead seek out other methods of contraception.
On the positive side, it is best to increase consumption of whole foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. Essential fatty acids are also very important. Good quality essential fatty acids can be obtained from flax oil and similar food supplements. Vitamin D is also important, and for those of us living this far north it’s a good idea to supplement it in the fall and winter. It may also be necessary to take a vitamin D supplement in the warmer months, especially for people with dark skin or who don’t spend very much time outdoors.
Antioxidant nutritional supplements will also benefit fibroids – these include vitamins A, C, E, the various carotenes, bioflavonoid and anthocyanin supplements such as grape seed, pine bark, and various berry extracts. However, the best way to increase our consumption of antioxidants is to eat lots of fruits and vegetables.
The Link Between Overweight and Fibroids/PCOS
In general, the more a woman’s weight increases above her ideal weight range, the greater the likelihood that she will suffer from reproductive conditions such as fibroids and PCOS. This is because the diet and lifestyle factors associated with increased obesity are also associated with increased incidence of reproductive disorders. Fatty tissue is a major storage site for toxins, and fat cells produce hormones that have the potential to disturb the balance of hormones in the body. So losing weight can be important for some women who suffer from fibroids or PCOS.
When it comes to losing weight, there are no magic bullets. The only healthy way is to lose it very gradually through adjusting the number of calories we eat (i.e. our diet) and the number of calories we burn (i.e. exercise). Rapid weight loss or oscillating between weight loss and weight gain are very unhealthy. Whatever diet and lifestyle that we need to follow in order to lose weight is the diet and lifestyle that we need to maintain in order to keep it off, so it must be healthy in the long term and something that we can live with comfortably.
The Role of Environmental Toxins
Toxicity is a major issue in all chronic health conditions. Aside from the general negative impact of toxicity on all cells and organs of our body, of particular concern with reproductive conditions is that many environmental toxins are hormone disruptors. These substances interfere with the normal functioning of hormones in our body and can contribute to the development of abnormal cell growth. Hormone disrupting toxins are very common. They include most pesticides and herbicides, and substances that are derived from petrochemical products such as plastics that are used to store food and water. Any plastics that have the recycling numbers 3, 6 or 7 on them contain known hormone disruptors such as pthalates and bisphenol A. This also includes the plastic lining on the inside of canned food and beverages. Our water supply also contains a lot of free estrogen which is excreted into the Great Lakes by millions of women taking birth control pills or HRT drugs. Estrogen is not removed from water by our municipal water treatment methods. Many pharmaceuticals and cosmetic products also contribute to our general toxicity and may contain ingredients that are endocrine disruptors.
For the prevention and treatment of fibroids and PCOS it is important to reduce exposure to toxins as much as possible. Eat foods that are certified organic, and reduce the use of toxic household cleaning products, commercial cosmetics, and other toxic chemicals in your home and workplace.
Ensuring proper liver function is essential to the treatment of this condition. The liver is our major organ of detoxification and fat metabolism. It is also the organ responsible for breaking down excessive levels of hormones. Factors that impede liver function include overeating, overconsumption of fatty and heavily processed foods, and all sources of toxicity. Liver function can be aided by increasing consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially bitter green vegetables such as rapini, escarole, mustard, endive, dandelion, and chicory.
Once we have addressed the dietary and lifestyle factors that contribute to fibroids and PCOS, there are also many beneficial herbs to consider. Herbal treatment requires two distinct stages:
1) In the first stage the focus is on improving digestion and liver function and detoxifying the body. At all stages of treatment we must also address stress.
Two groups of herbs are particularly important here. The first group are calming aromatic herbs that help reduce stress, improve digestion and have a mild tonic influence on the female reproductive system. These include lemon balm herb (Melissa officinalis) 20-30%, lavender flower (Lavandula angustifolia) 20-30%, catnip herb (Nepeta cataria) 20-25%, German chamomile flower (Matricaria recutita) 20-25%, spearmint herb (Mentha spicata) 20-30%, wild mint herb (Mentha arvensis) 20-30%, and wild bergamot herb (Monarda fistulosa) 20-25%.
The second group of herbs is bitter herbs that improve digestion, liver function, and aid detoxification. These include dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) 20-30%, burdock root (Arctium spp.) 20-30%, gentian root (Gentiana lutea) 15-20%, and centaury herb (Centaurium erythraea) 15-20%.
We usually combine two or three herbs from the first group with one or two herbs from the second group.
These herbs are best taken as fresh plant tinctures. They should be taken three times per day on an empty stomach. The best times are 15-20 minutes before each meal, three to four droppers per dose. A dropper consists of whatever amount of tincture that you get when you completely squeeze the bulb of your dropper. The formulation is taken for several months before beginning the second stage of the treatment.
2) In the second stage we continue to use the first formulation, but we alternate it with a second formulation. The second formulation also includes two to three herbs from the first group of herbs mentioned above, making up approximately two thirds of the formulation. In addition, it includes two gentle female reproductive tonic herbs. The best choices are chaste tree fruit (Vitex agnus-castus) 10-15%, motherwort herb (Leonurus cardiaca) 20-25%, blue vervain herb (Verbena hastata) 15-20%, Queen Anne’s lace seed (Daucus carota) 15-20%, partridgeberry herb (Mitchella repens) 20-25%, and raspberry leaf and flower (Rubus idaeus) 20-25%.
This second formulation should be taken in three to four droppers, three times per day before meals. However, it should be taken beginning one week before you would expect to get your period, and continued until two to three days after your period is over. Then you switch back to the first formulation and take it as before for the duration of your cycle.
Continue alternating between these formulations until your symptoms resolve or stop improving.
If you taking any medications it is a good idea to consult with a herbalist before embarking on any ongoing herbal protocol.
As always, if you have any unusual reactions to these herbs, stop taking them immediately and consult with a herbalist or other complementary health practitioner. If you don’t get any noticeable results by the time that you have continued the second stage of the treatment for at least three cycles, you should also consult with a qualified practitioner. This treatment will work for mild to moderate cases that are not too complex, however many cases will require professional guidance.
Chronic health conditions are inconvenient and uncomfortable. They are always a call to action: your body’s way of communicating that your life is in some way out of balance. They also point in the direction of how we can resolve things and improve our quality of life. Summer is also a call to action: an invitation to be more active and spend more time outdoors and in nature. It’s a great time to establish new, healthier habits before the colder weather returns when it’s easier to convince ourselves otherwise. The choice is ours.
Have a great summer!
(Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted and reprinted from a previous article written by Michael Vertolli and published in the June 2003 issue of Vitality magazine: http://tinyurl.com/pbs6o2u)