Endometriosis is a complex condition that affects up to 10% of women of reproductive age worldwide. It's characterized by the growth of endometrial-like tissue outside of the uterus, leading to chronic pain, inflammation, and in some cases, infertility. While conventional treatments like surgery and hormone therapy can help alleviate symptoms, many women seek additional support in managing their condition.
Integrative medicine offers a promising approach by combining conventional treatments with complementary therapies like acupuncture, nutrition, and exercise. This approach considers the person as a whole, addressing not only the physical symptoms but also the emotional and mental aspects of the disease. Integrative approaches can provide a more comprehensive and effective way of managing endometriosis by considering all aspects of a woman's health and well-being.
What is Endometriosis?
Endometriosis is a complex gynecological disorder that affects millions of women worldwide. The condition occurs when tissue similar to the uterus's lining grows outside the uterus. It commonly grows on the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and pelvis lining. The endometrial-like tissue can implant, grow, and invade other organs and tissues within the pelvic cavity. This process can lead to the formation of adhesions, cysts, and nodules, which can cause inflammation, chronic pain, and other complications.
Despite being a common disorder, endometriosis remains poorly understood, and research is ongoing to determine its causes and risk factors. While the exact cause of endometriosis is unknown, researchers believe it is linked to hormonal imbalances, genetic predisposition, and environmental factors. Endometriosis can be challenging to diagnose, as its symptoms can be similar to other conditions. However, early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent the disease from progressing and alleviate pain and discomfort. Despite its debilitating effects, women with endometriosis often face significant delays in diagnosis and inadequate medical care (1,3 4).
Symptoms of Endometriosis
While endometriosis can affect women differently, many experience multiple symptoms associated with the condition. However, it's important to note that not all women with endometriosis will experience these. Some women may have mild or no symptoms, while others may experience severe symptoms. It's also worth noting that the severity of the most common symptom, pain, does not necessarily correlate with the stage or severity of endometriosis (5).
Common symptoms include (1,5,6,7):
- Pelvic pain (can range from mild to severe)
- Painful periods (dysmenorrhea)
- Pain during or after sex (dyspareunia)
- Painful bowel movements (dyschezia)
- Painful urination (dysuria)
- Chronic fatigue
- Gastrointestinal issues such as bloating, nausea, and diarrhea
- Infertility or difficulty getting pregnant
- Heavy or irregular periods (menorrhagia or metrorrhagia)
- Lower back pain
- Painful ovulation
- Ovarian cysts
- Painful pelvic exams
- Painful or difficult bowel movements during menstruation
- Painful bladder syndrome (interstitial cystitis)
- Depression or anxiety related to chronic pain and other symptoms
What Causes Endometriosis?
Endometriosis doesn't have an exact known cause. However, a functional medicine approach evaluates the root causes of this condition. Below are some of the likely root causes of endometriosis:
Several environmental factors have been linked to endometriosis. Exposure to certain toxins, such as heavy metals and phthalates, have been shown to increase the risk of developing endometriosis. In addition, pesticides and other industrial products have also been shown to increase risk.
Recent research has highlighted the potential role of diet and inflammation in developing endometriosis. For example, studies have found that consuming a diet high in red meat, processed meat, and saturated fat may increase the risk of developing endometriosis. In contrast, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids may help to reduce the risk (10,11).
In addition to dietary factors, research has suggested a possible link between endometriosis and the gut microbiome. The microbiome is a complex ecosystem of microorganisms that inhabit the gut and play a vital role in our health and well-being. Studies have shown notable differences in the gut microbiome of women with endometriosis compared to those without the condition. However, the nature of this relationship remains unclear, and further research is needed to determine whether changes in gut bacteria contribute to endometriosis or if endometriosis alters the gut microbiome.
Certain lifestyle factors have also been linked to endometriosis. For example, women who engage in regular physical activity are less likely to develop endometriosis than those who are sedentary due to reduced bodily inflammation. Additionally, stress may play a role in the development of endometriosis. Women who experience high stress, especially chronic stress, may be more likely to develop the condition via a weakened immune system.
Immune System Dysfunction
Recent research suggests that a faulty immune system may play a role in causing endometriosis. The immune system finds and destroys harmful cells, like those that grow in the wrong place in endometriosis. Women with endometriosis have more immune cells in their pelvic area, but these cells may not work well to eliminate the harmful cells.
Inflammation is also involved in endometriosis. Women with this condition have higher levels of chemicals in their bodies that cause inflammation, leading to pain and discomfort. In addition, the imbalance of immune cells and chemicals in the pelvic area may also help the harmful cells grow and survive outside the uterus, which can cause endometriosis.
Hormonal imbalances have also been identified as a key factor in developing endometriosis. Endometriosis is an estrogen-dependent condition, which means that it requires estrogen to grow. As a result, women with endometriosis have been found to have higher estrogen levels than women without the condition. This excess estrogen stimulates the growth and development of endometrial tissue outside of the uterus, leading to endometriotic lesions.
In addition to estrogen, progesterone, another hormone involved in the menstrual cycle, is also thought to play a role in developing endometriosis. Progesterone is known to have anti-inflammatory properties and may help to prevent the growth and development of endometrial tissue outside of the uterus. However, in women with endometriosis, it is thought that there may be progesterone resistance. This means that the endometrial tissue is not responding to the anti-inflammatory effects of progesterone, allowing it to continue to grow and develop.
Endometriosis is a condition that has a hereditary component, meaning that genetics play a significant role in its development. Women with a family history of endometriosis are at a higher risk of developing the condition. One study suggests that specific genes may impact how the body processes estrogen, a hormone required for the growth and development of endometrial tissue. Consequently, women with endometriosis have higher estrogen levels in their blood and tissue than women without the condition. Genetic variations affecting the body's estrogen response may increase endometriosis susceptibility. In addition, specific genes may also affect immune system function, making some women more vulnerable to immune system dysfunction that contributes to endometriosis development.
Functional Medicine Labs to Run on Your Endometriosis Patients
Functional medicine labs can assist practitioners in evaluating the root causes of endometriosis. Here are some of the most common tests to assess endometriosis:
Environmental Exposure Testing
The GPL-TOX Profile by Great Plains Laboratory is a urine test that screens for the presence of 173 different toxic chemicals, including pesticides and phthalates. Pesticides and phthalates are widely used in agriculture and personal care products and can cause acute and chronic toxicity. They can affect the nervous, immune, endocrine, and reproductive systems and are linked to the development of endometriosis. By taking the GPL-TOX Profile, you can identify if you have been exposed to these pesticides and take steps to reduce your exposure and detoxify your body.
Heavy Metals Testing
The Heavy Metals, 21 Toxic, Urine (24-hour) test by Access Medical Laboratories is a test that measures the levels of 21 different heavy metals in your urine over a 24-hour period. Heavy metals can be toxic to your health if they accumulate in your body. Some examples of heavy metals are lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium. This test can help you evaluate and monitor your heavy metal exposure and detoxification status.
Comprehensive Stool Analysis
GI-MAP by Diagnostic Solutions Laboratory is helpful for evaluating gut health, especially for those with endometriosis. Endometriosis can cause disturbances in the microbiome and inflammation, leading to gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain, and irregular bowel movements. By analyzing stool samples for various markers of gastrointestinal health, including inflammation and potential immune dysfunction, the GI-MAP test can help identify potential imbalances and areas for targeted treatment. This can be particularly helpful in developing a comprehensive treatment plan for individuals with endometriosis, as addressing gut health can help alleviate some of the associated symptoms and improve the overall quality of life.
Comprehensive Hormone Testing
The DUTCH Complete test by Precision Analytical is a comprehensive tool for evaluating hormone levels, adrenal function, and other markers relevant to endometriosis. Chronic stress is a known risk factor for endometriosis, as it can lead to decreased immune function and increased inflammation in the body. The DUTCH Complete test measures various hormones and metabolites in your urine sample, including estrogen, progesterone, cortisol, DHEA-S, testosterone, and melatonin, which can all play a role in endometriosis development and symptoms. Hormone abnormalities, such as excess estrogen, have also been linked to endometriosis, and the DUTCH Complete test can provide insights into any imbalances contributing to symptoms. In addition, the test measures your cortisol awakening response (CAR) and organic acids that reflect your neurotransmitter and nutrient status, providing a more comprehensive picture of your overall health and potential underlying factors contributing to your endometriosis. The DUTCH Complete test can help guide targeted treatment and lifestyle interventions to reduce stress, balance hormones, and improve overall health by analyzing these markers.
The hs-CRP marker by BioReference Laboratories measures high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP), a more sensitive inflammation marker than regular CRP. Testing for hs-CRP is crucial for individuals with endometriosis since the condition is associated with chronic inflammation. Women with endometriosis typically exhibit increased levels of hs-CRP, which is a key inflammatory marker in the body. This test monitors inflammation levels and assesses the effectiveness of treatment interventions focused on inflammation reduction.
Integrative Approaches to Endometriosis: Managing Pain and Improving Quality of Life
Exercise for Endometriosis
Incorporating regular exercise into a treatment plan can be a helpful strategy for managing the symptoms of endometriosis. Endometriosis is associated with chronic inflammation, which can cause pain and discomfort. Regular exercise has anti-inflammatory effects and can help to reduce inflammation and improve symptoms. Exercise can also support immune system function, which plays a crucial role in the development and progression of endometriosis. Studies have shown that exercise can reduce the number of immune cells that contribute to inflammation and increase the number of immune cells that help to fight infection and disease. In addition to reducing inflammation and supporting immune function, exercise can also help to regulate hormone levels, which are key factors in developing endometriosis.
Nutrition for Endometriosis
Nutrition is an important aspect of managing endometriosis symptoms. Some dietary changes that can help reduce inflammation and manage symptoms include eating a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, nuts, and seeds. One great example of a diet that meets these conditions is the Mediterranean Diet.
Probiotics, prebiotics, and other dietary interventions can be used to support a healthy gut microbiome. Probiotics are live bacteria that can be ingested to help restore the balance of bacteria in the gut. Prebiotics, on the other hand, are dietary fibers that feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut, helping them to thrive.
In addition, reducing the consumption of inflammatory foods and consuming more anti-inflammatory foods (as described above) can also help to support a healthy gut microbiome and reduce inflammation throughout the body. Some inflammatory foods to avoid or reduce include processed foods, fried foods, sugar, trans fats, red meat, caffeine, and alcohol. In addition, it may be worth trying to eliminate dairy and gluten as these ingredients may exacerbate inflammation and immune dysfunction in some individuals.
Supplements and Herbs for Endometriosis
There are several evidence-based supplements and herbs that may help alleviate endometriosis symptoms. Some of the most promising supplements and herbs include omega-3 fatty acids, which have been found to reduce pain and inflammation. Curcumin, an active compound found in turmeric, has anti-inflammatory properties and has been found to reduce pain and inflammation in some studies. Vitex agnus-castus (chasteberry) is another herb that has been used for centuries to regulate menstrual cycles and hormonal imbalances, which are common in women with endometriosis.
If heavy metal toxicity is detected, it is also important to incorporate supplements for liver detox or liver support. The liver is crucial in removing toxins, including heavy metals, from the body. Milk thistle is an herb traditionally used to support liver function and has been found to have a protective effect against liver damage from heavy metal exposure. Other supplements supporting liver detoxification include N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), alpha-lipoic acid (ALA), and glutathione.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Endometriosis
CAM therapies such as acupuncture, chiropractic care, vitamin therapy, massage, and yoga may also be beneficial for women with endometriosis. Some potential benefits of CAM therapies for endometriosis include acupuncture, which has been found to help reduce pain and improve quality of life in some studies. Chiropractic care, including spinal adjustments and soft tissue therapy, may help alleviate pelvic pain associated with endometriosis. Vitamin therapy, including certain vitamins such as vitamin D and B6, may help regulate hormones and improve immune function, which can be helpful for women with endometriosis. Lastly, massage may help reduce stress and improve circulation, benefiting women with endometriosis.
Endometriosis is a widespread condition that causes chronic pain, inflammation, and infertility, affecting millions of women globally. Integrative medicine presents a promising approach to managing the condition by combining conventional treatments with complementary therapies, including nutrition and exercise. Early detection through testing is essential for receiving adequate medical care and improving quality of life. With a multi-faceted approach that combines conventional and complementary therapies and early detection, women can manage endometriosis symptoms and improve their overall health and well-being.
Lab Tests in This Article