This post was originally published on September 18th, 2018 and updated with new information, links, and anecdotes in February 2021. This post details my own experience and should not be taken as medical advice.
I’ve talked a lot about my struggles with mental health in the past, but I’m less vocal about one of the root causes: endometriosis. I’ve been living with endometriosis since I was twelve years old, though it took nearly a decade of condescending, dismissing remarks from doctors to get a diagnosis.
The first time I complained to a doctor about the pain that came along with my period, he dramatically rolled his eyes and said, “Welcome to womanhood. What you’re experiencing is normal and you’ll be experiencing it for the next 40 years.”
I was a child, so I went home and cried about this new chapter of my life, and I believed that it was something I’d deal with for most of adulthood.
It wasn’t until I was fourteen and my friends started to get their periods and we compared war stories that I finally realized that what I was experiencing wasn’t normal compared to the mild symptoms my friends were dealing with.
From there, I began actively advocating for myself at doctor’s appointments, only to be dismissed as dramatic or having a low pain tolerance. Through my own research, I self-diagnosed myself with endometriosis at 16, but I couldn’t get a doctor to even give that idea the time of day until my early twenties.
It took years of trying to convince my doctors that something was actually wrong, but in college I finally got my endometriosis diagnosis and the validation I’d been seeking for years.
What is endometriosis?
I’m not a doctor and I’m not going to pretend to be one. If you want a really scientific breakdown watch the video below. (TW: clips of a cadaver). Otherwise, I wrote out how I usually explain endo to my friends.
In short, endometriosis happens when the endometrium grows outside of the uterus.
Basically, every person who was assigned female at birth, is of reproductive age, and has a typically functioning female reproductive system will get a period each month (give or take). But that period is only a short window of their reproductive cycle.
Before they get their period, their body will line their uterus with endometrium to help prepare for a potential pregnancy. If there is no pregnancy, the body sheds that tissue through a period.
For a person with endometriosis, the endometrium doesn’t just grow in their uterus. It grows in the bowels, on the ovaries, on the uterus, in the abdominal cavity, and sometimes even in the heart or brain.
The growth itself can be painful, oftentime fusing organs together or evolving into cysts, but the real pain comes during the period. Endometrium that is growing inside of the uterus can easily be shed and removed through the body via the birthing canal, whereas endometrium growing outside of the uterus has nowhere to go.
What are symptoms of endometriosis?
For me, endometriosis looked like this:
- Fainting spells at the onset of my period
- Vomiting at the onset of my period
- Intense pain in my upper legs, groin, stomach, and back
- Increased fatigue that has me sleeping ~18 hours on day 1 of my period
- Extreme bloating at the beginning of my period
- Severe breast pain the days leading up to my period (like even just walking too aggressively will send a shooting pain through the tatas.)
Other people experience things like pain using the bathroom, diarrhea, extreme mood swings, hot flashes, and infertility.
While my symptoms aren’t gone by any means, the strategies in this post have helped reduce them.
How do doctors treat endometriosis?
Unfortunately, there is no perfect solution to endometriosis. The two most common treatments, though, are hormonal intervention and surgery.
For people who respond well to hormonal intervention, birth control can go a long way in reducing endo symptoms, or in rare cases, eliminating them altogether.
I’ve tried hormonal intervention, but due to issues I was already experiencing with my mental health it wasn’t a good fit. Several years after coming off of hormonal birth control I had a pulmonary embolism. Because hormonal birth control increases the chances of blood clots, I can no longer go on the pill even if I wanted to.
Personally, I’m somewhat against hormonal birth control on a whole for a handful of other reasons (that’s another post for another time, but a lot of my opinions are based on reading The Period Repair Manual by Lara Briden), but for people who are comfortable with hormonal interventions, it can be an elegant solution for treating endometriosis.
The second option I haven’t experienced myself and that’s a laparoscopic surgery to remove the endometrium and scar tissue. In college I went in for a consultation about the surgery, and with the doctor determined that it’s something I wanted, just not yet. In short, the surgery isn’t a permanent solution and in some cases only provides a few months of relief. For me, the risks of going under anesthesia and the costs weren’t worth it. The doctor also stressed that it was something he recommended getting ~1 year before I hope to conceive. I didn’t want to get it in college and then put myself through another surgery a few years later when I decided I wanted to become pregnant.
With that said, I am now 25 and getting married later this year. We hope to become parents in the next three to five years, so the surgery is back on my radar. Endometriosis can decrease fertility and increase the chances of a miscarriage, so I plan on exploring a timeline for that after the wedding.
Now, for some people, the surgery is a near permanent solution. I’ve talked to a handful of women who have had the surgery and years later their symptoms haven’t reappeared.
Treating endometriosis homeopathically
OK, so here are where things are about to get ~controversial~. I’m a big believer in the idea that you can heal your body through nutrition, largely because I’ve seen my own body heal from making intentional changes to my diet.
In addition to nutrition, I’ve also made lifestyle changes that have helped greatly reduce my symptoms, too.
Let me say this: I’ve done trial and error and things that have worked beautifully for some of my friends have done nothing for me. Likewise, something that has worked for me may do absolutely nothing for you. A lot of this is backed up by anecdotal evidence instead of science, so keep that in mind, too.
An open mind is important here. Science hasn’t always been up to speed when it comes to women’s health. We have to advocate for ourselves and find solutions on our own when our medical teams won’t help us.
With that out of the way, here are the changes I’ve made and the logic behind them. But fair warning: there are some hippy-dippy suggestions. I definitely had to get over a healthy amount of skepticism before getting behind them myself.
Cut out meat
This is by far the most controversial piece of advice in this article. Surprisingly, my personal decision to not eat meat has offended more people than I could possibly keep count of. With that said, it’s arguably one of the best choices I’ve made in my life.
I read that meat could make endometriosis worse, so I cut it out. Immediately, my body began to rejoice. My pain went from a 50/10 to a 12/10, I stopped fainting, and my acne all but disappeared within 2 or 3 months, and my bloating was more manageable.
The next three months I experience the easiest, least painful periods of my life. While it wasn’t a permanent solution, my endometriosis has never been as bad as it was when I was eating meat.
Basically, meat can cause inflammation in the body and inflammation paired with endometriosis = misery.
I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 6 years now, and over time my body has stopped responding as well as it did the first two or three years. I anticipate being a vegetarian for the rest of my life for the other benefits I’ve seen, but really it only had a drastic difference in my endometriosis pain for 12-18 monts.
Cut out animal byproducts
Update: This section was written in 2018. Since then I’ve intentionally reintroduced farm fresh eggs to my diet at the recommendation of my doctor to deal with unrelated health issues I was facing.
The next logical step for me was to try a vegan diet. Now full disclaimer: I’ve never been a “perfect” vegan. I won’t eat meat at all, but I don’t grill waiters when I go out to eat, I will eat any meat free dish that a friend or relative cooks for me to be polite, and I will even have a slice of birthday cake if it’s offered to me, but I do cook exclusively vegan food at home and then just focus on doing the best I can do outside of the house.
Again, this change gave me a few great months before my pain returned. Not only that, but it also had the most phenomenal effect on my skin. On the months where I eat 100% plant-based, I will have clear, blemish free skin. When I do consume something containing dairy, my chin and jaw break out in the next few days.
Like meat, a lot of animal products can cause inflammation in the body. This inflammation is often negligible enough not to notice when you’re really healthy. But, again, with endometriosis any amount of inflammation is enough to ruin your week.
Edibles to manage pain
I’ve never been too public about my use of marijuana (I’m pretty sure this post is the only place it’s documented) because it’s still controversial. But marijuana works better than any prescription pain killer or muscle relaxer when it comes to easing my pain. I’ve always been pretty straight edge (alcohol grosses me out and I’ve never dabbled in any other drug) but desperate times, right? When it was legalized in my state I started taking gummies to help with the cramps and they are really the only thing that brings me peace on day 1 and 2.
If you’re comfortable with trying out marijuana, I really think it makes a huge difference. If I take a 1/2 a gummy a few hours before my cramps start I can usually get through the day without feeling ill or like I need to go home. I do feel high when I take them, but as long as I only take a 1/2 gummy, it’s not unmanageable.
Eat whole foods
A lot of people prefer the term “plant-based” over “vegan” because a whole-food plant-based diet more strongly implies a healthy diet.
In short, you want to eat foods as close to their natural state as possible. Processed foods often have preservatives or not-so-great ingredients added to them. Whereas if you’re eating a largely whole food diet you’re getting food in its most natural state.
Eating foods that aren’t processed and as close to their natural form as possible nearly forces you to eat healthier. Whole foods = fruits and veggies.
Cut out added sugar
This one has been the hardest for me, and one that I’ve got a lot of room for improvement on. With that said, like meat and dairy, sugar basically feeds inflammation in your body, and that added inflammation really magnifies the pain associated with endo.
I really don’t do a great job at this (I’m sipping on a coffee with almond milk and sugar now), but I am a lot better than I used to be.
Supplement with magnesium
I cannot say enough good things about magnesium. Taking a magnesium supplement was the first tip I took from Period Repair Manual and saying that it changed my life would be an understatement.
Given this post is about endometriosis, you may think I’m about to say that magnesium cured me.
Well, not quite.
Yes, it’s decreased my period related symptoms slightly thanks to the effect it has on inflammation, but the real life changing part is that magnesium has done wonders for my anxiety and depression.
I usually get low about once a month or so. Since starting magnesium in June I haven’t had any significant bouts of depression. Even amidst my team at work falling apart, my workload skyrocketing, and a breakup I stayed healthy.
Stop using plastic
OK, here is where I’m going to get a little bit crazy. I was reading through forums and read about eliminating plastic from your life to reduce your symptoms.
In short, plastic can contain chemicals that act as endocrine disruptors which alters the way your body processes hormones.
Again, if things are all good in your body, the effect might be negligible. For people who are already dealing with hormonal issues, these endocrine disruptors can be enough to push their disease to the next level.
I switched from using a reusable plastic bottle to glass, I got a new shower curtain liner that’s plastic free, swapped most of my tupperware for glass containers, and donated a bunch of plastic products I had lying around my house.
While I haven’t noticed any huge changes doing this yet, I’ve found that I actually prefer non-plastic products.
Focus on gut health
I’ve been all about gut health ever since I learned about kombucha. Basically, for people eating the Standard American Diet, your gut is probably 10/10 out of whack.
A healthy gut goes a long way in ensuring a healthy body.
Less than optimal gut health is linked with endometriosis and a slew of other diseases. (Did you know they call the gut our second brain? Healing your gut also helps cure anxiety and depression!)
For me, focusing on gut health looks like taking daily prebiotics and probiotics, eating a lot of fermented foods like sauerkraut and kombucha, and following the diet tips mentioned above.
Eat anti-inflammatory foods
We’ve talked about foods that cause inflammation, but there are also foods that fight inflammation in your body, too.
Garlic, turmeric, lemon, and onions are my favorite anti-inflammatory foods, but there are anti-inflammatory foods for every preference.
Now, just because you have turmeric tea with breakfast doesn’t cancel out a big steak dinner with onion rings and a milkshake on the side, but anti-inflammatory foods can help neutralize small amounts of inflammation in the body.
I’m still learning…
Like I said, I’m not a doctor and some of these methods aren’t scientifically backed. But for me, they work and they’re worth it. I’m not telling you that you have to make these changes to heal yourself. Or that they are definitely going to work for you.
As of today when I’m updating this post (February 2021), I have a few other strategies on my radar I’m hoping to try out.
- Seed cycling: My therapist is also a holistic health specialist and she recommended I try seed cycling. I need to do more research and buy the seeds. I’ll report back once I do!
- A TENS machines: I found a woman on TikTok who uses one to manage her endo pain and I’ve been intrigued. Right now I don’t have the money for one, but I plan on ordering as soon as I do.
- Prenatal massage: My therapist also told me her friend (who isn’t pregnant) has endometriosis and gets a prenatal massage every month 2-3 days before her period is due to start. Again, I don’t have the money for this but I’d love to try it when I do!
But I do recommend researching them further and deciding if any are a good fit for you and your situation.
If any of you have endo, I’d love to hear what works for you!