Worldwide, one in 10 women suffers in silence from a disease that most people have never heard of. More shockingly, it’s been noted that many young girls with this condition have been driven to suicide. “We can only imagine the hopelessness and despair she felt thinking that her pain would never go away,” says Carol Drury of the US Endometriosis Association.
INSIDIOUS AND UNNOTICED
Endometriosis affects 176 million women globally. That makes it more common than breast cancer or AIDS, yet it remains one of the most misunderstood diseases today. Statistics show that, generally, it takes seven years from when a woman starts having symptoms to when she obtains treatment. It usually affects women between the ages of 15-49, but has also been found in girls as young as eight.
Endo (as it’s referred to) is a serious biological malfunction which focuses on a woman’s reproductive organs and is fuelled by hormonal imbalances. The equilibrium between estrogen and progesterone is key to a regular menstrual cycle, however, a surge of estrogen will make everything go off-key. Physically, estrogen dominance causes cells to develop in areas other than the lining of the womb, called the endometrium.
Each month, the endometrium builds up with blood and tissue to prepare for pregnancy. When this doesn’t occur, it sheds the lining in the form of a period. A similar reaction takes place in the stray growths, but the blood has no way of leaving the body, resulting in internal bleeding. Symptoms include painful periods, abnormal bleeding, chronic pelvic pain, fatigue and infertility, and may impact on all areas of a woman’s life.
FUELLING THE FIRE
Disturbingly, the disease seems to be gaining ground. The exact triggers are still not clear, but researchers are now focusing on environmental toxins. An excess of estrogen literally fuels the endometriosis fire, and, as this hormone is found in almost everything on the planet, there seems to be no getting away from it.
One study has linked endo to dioxins and biphenyls (PCBs), toxins found in pesticides, bleached pulp and paper products, and waste incineration. Another endocrine disruptor, bisphenol-A, is found in the inside of metal food cans, hard plastic drinking bottles and baby bottles.
Endometriosis isn’t usually fatal, however, in vary rare cases, ovarian growths have become cancerous. Studies have shown that women with endo usually have coexisting conditions, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, migraine and autoimmune disorders. Apart from the environmental link, other theories regarding the causes have been purported.
The retrograde menstruation theory suggests that, during a period, some of the tissue backs up through the fallopian tubes, implanting itself elsewhere. Others believe that endometrial tissue is distributed through the lymph system or bloodstream. Surgical transplantations have been cited in cases where endo is found in abdominal scars.
The genetic theory is also regarded as highly likely. Studies have found a 10-fold increase in incidence in women with an affected relative.
There’s no known cure, however, some medications have been found to be fairly effective. Many aren’t really suitable for long-term use due to unpleasant side effects. Because hormones cause endo to follow a pattern similar to the menstrual cycle, hormones can also be valuable in treating the symptoms of endometriosis. Therapy involves the use of bioidentical progesterone to counteract the estrogen dominance, thereby limiting its destructive function.
A diet high in fibre (whole grains, beans, pulses and brown rice) and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli and cabbage) is also thought to modulate estrogen levels. In addition, many nutrients reduce estrogen levels including indole-3-carbinol (I3C), the B vitamins, magnesium, calcium and antioxidants.
In the more severe cases, minimally-invasive surgery like laparoscopy can be effective to remove endometriosis lesions and scar tissue. Laparoscopy is also called ‘band-aid’ surgery because only small incisions are needed to accommodate the laparoscope, an instrument that looks like a small telescope with a light and a video camera, so the doctor can view the area and perform the surgery.
Last year, the US Senate launched the Campaign to End Chronic Pain in Women to promote research and awareness of neglected chronic pain conditions that predominantly affect women. This campaign was started in response to a groundbreaking report that documented that, to-date, only $1.33 has been invested in research for every woman affected by diseases associated with debilitating pain, including endometriosis. “Education of health care professionals and the general public is essential to ensure that women no longer have to suffer in silence,” says Mary Lou Ballweg, President and Executive Director of the US Endometriosis Association.
Just knowing what endometriosis is about can help sufferers manage it better. Millions of women with endo live normal lives – there really is no reason for a sufferer to commit suicide.
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