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Look around and odds are you’ll spy a woman who has endometriosis.
Affecting about 1 in 10 women of reproductive age, it’s a condition that’s associated with intense pain that can impact a day-to-day life — we’re talking sick days, hospital visits, and chronic discomfort that just plain sucks.
The good news? There are plenty of options out there to help manage endometriosis symptoms.
One of the simplest tools at your disposal is tweaking your diet. It’s not a cure all, but many women have seen positive changes by eating and/or avoiding certain foods.
Here are five food groups that can help manage the condition, and six that might make symptoms worse.
Whenever you have your period, you get a chance to say hello to your endometrium, otherwise known as the uterine lining. Most of the time (excluding when Aunt Flow makes her visit), this lining stays right where it belongs — in the uterus.
For someone with endometriosis, however, tissue similar to the endometrium grows outside of the womb. This causes irritation, adhesion, and scar tissue wherever the endometrium-like tissue grows.
Long story short, it’s incredibly painful and in some cases can lead to infertility.
Yes and no. While we wish an extra helping of salmon at dinnertime was all it took to eliminate endometriosis symptoms, a treatment plan from your doctor is always the best course of action.
Your doctor can help you determine how to manage your symptoms, or even if it might be beneficial to consider laparoscopic surgery, which is a procedure for removing endometrium-like tissue.
That being said, there is evidence that certain foods can impact the severity of your symptoms.
Here are five foods to eat more of:
1. Salmon and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids
What we know about omega-3s: They play a big role in helping our bodies fight pain and inflammation, which can be especially helpful for those dealing with endometriosis.
Omega-3s also have the most scientific support of reducing the risk of developing endometriosis in the first place.
A study of 74,708 women found that patients who ate lots of omega-3s had a lower risk of endometriosis. In another study, women who ate the most salmon (and other foods rich in omega-3s) were 22 percent less likely to develop it.
If you’ve had your fill of salmon, try munching on mackerel, sardines, anchovies, or oysters, which are all great sources of the helpful fatty acids.
Not a fish fan? Reach for flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts to get your omega-3 fix.
When all else fails, turn to fish oil supplements. In a preliminary mouse study, fish oil supplements lead to a reduction of endometrial adhesions. Although, this is a very early study and it’s hard to say whether the same would be true for humans.
Still, omega-3s have all kinds of health benefits, and if you’d rather not go to town on nuts and fish, a supplement might be a good option.
2. Leafy greens and whole fruits
What healthy diet list would be complete without a mention of fruits and vegetables? Both are good sources of fiber, which can lower estrogen levels and, ergo, help manage endo symptoms.
Unsurprisingly, green vegetables are an ideal place to start.
Multiple studies found that eating lots of green veggies decreases your risk of the disorder. So things like spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and arugula are great options to add to your diet.
Though leafy greens came out on top in most studies, some found that vegetable intake made no difference in the occurrence of endometriosis.
And then there’s fruits. As you recall from just about every lesson in grade school, whole fruits are full of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that do the body good.
Even better, they’re loaded with antioxidants, which research suggests can reduce chronic pelvic pain in women with endometriosis.
And while we know added sugars can trigger inflammation, the naturally occurring fructose in whole fruits is A-OK. Just don’t confuse a pint of raspberry ice cream for a pint of actual raspberries.
3. Oats, cherries, and almonds, oh my!
No, these aren’t the ingredients for a homemade granola bar — though, it’s not a bad idea if you need some meal prep inspo. They’re actually all foods that are high in melatonin. Opt for tart cherries over sweet varieties.
Other than being an important sleep aid, one study found that melatonin significantly reduced endometriosis pain. The study noted that 10 mg of melatonin per day helped participants manage pain levels.
If oatmeal isn’t your favorite, you can always reach for a supplement. Just be sure to check with your doctor before making any major diet changes.
4. Low-FODMAP foods
“Quit eating so many FODMAPs!” is probably not something your mom said at the dinner table. But there is some evidence that a low-FODMAP diet could help.
So, what does that mean? The low-FODMAP (fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides, and polyols) diet was developed for people with IBS to reduce symptoms of intestinal discomfort.
With this diet you avoid foods like: wheat, rye, legumes, garlic, onions, milk, yogurt, soft cheese, honey, low calorie sweeteners, and a variety of fruits.
It’s a lot to give up, so it’s worth noting that studies have shown that only people with IBS and endometriosis were helped by the Low-FODMAP diet.
5. Green tea
Research suggests that green tea’s cancer-fighting secret ingredient EGCG can also help put endometriosis in its place.
EGCG has been found to shrink tumor cells, which is why green tea is recommended as a drink for cancer patients. Similarly, one 2008 study found that EGCG could prevent new endometriotic lesions from forming.
While we’re all for having a daily tea party complete with finger sandwiches and scones, you can always turn to an EGCG supplement for relief (providing you get the OK from your doc!).
Here are a few other supplements with promising science you can check out:
1. Trans fats
Just like omega-3s have the most scientific support for reducing the risk of developing endometriosis, trans fats are on the opposite side of the coin.
In general, trans fats lead to greater inflammation which can add to the pain and discomfort of endometriosis. Eating high levels of trans fats can also increase your risk of developing the disorder by up to 48 percent!
As much as we love them, try to avoid foods like vegetable shortening, fried fast food, canned frosting, and non-dairy coffee creamer.
Though “gluten-free” has become the latest outrage of middle-aged comedians, there’s some proof that a gluten-free diet can help symptoms of endometriosis.
In a 2012 study from Tor Vergata University, 75 percent of the patients on a gluten-free diet had a noticeable reduction in pain. It’s good to note that this is only one study and needs more proof before it’s scientifically verified.
If you’d like to try a gluten-free diet to decrease pain and inflammation, it’s best to go with naturally gluten-free foods like vegetables and lean meats.
Gluten-free versions of popular carbs — like bread, pasta, and baked goods — are often refined and full of extra fat and sugar to make up for the lack of gluten.
3. Red meat
Bacon lovers, don’t shoot the messenger. A 2004 study from the University of Milano found that red meat and ham significantly increased the likelihood of endometriosis.
Before you ditch your Cheeseburger Fridays though, it’s only fair to mention that there are more recent studies that have found no link at all between red meat and endometriosis.
While eating a lot of saturated fat via red meat may generally not be the best thing to do, that doesn’t mean you can’t ever touch a steak. Instead, try to limit your servings of red meat to once or twice per week.
4. Coffee and alcohol (maybe)
Coffee and alcohol would seem to be bad for endometriosis since coffee has been found to increase an estrogen protein in the body, and increased estrogen may be linked to causing endometriosis.
Some studies found increased alcohol consumption led to an increased likelihood of getting the disorder, while other studies found no link between alcohol and endometriosis.
Even more confusing, coffee and alcohol can have both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory properties, which means you might have to do some experimenting to find what works for you.
Generally, consuming either in moderation shouldn’t send your body into an inflamed tailspin, but it’s always best to check with your doctor.
5. Dairy (kinda)
Another head scratcher, here. Most studies recommend avoiding dairy — especially milk, yogurt, and cheese — to keep endometriosis symptoms in check.
However, there is some research that links low-fat dairy consumption with reduced risk of developing endometriosis, and suggests dairy has anti-inflammatory properties.
Ultimately, more research is needed and this might be a case where personal experimentation or a consultation with your doc is the way to go.
There’s no specific diet that will prevent or cure endometriosis. But eating more omega-3 fatty acids and fewer trans fats may help manage pain as well as reduce your risk of developing endometriosis.