When Louise Reid started getting her periods at the age of 11, they were so painful that even the strongest drugs doctors could give her made no difference. “I’d be doubled up in pain and would sometimes pass out,” recalls Louise, now 40 and living in London. “I ended up getting painkillers from Australia, as no drugs in the UK were powerful enough!”
But it wasn’t until over two decades later, after she’d been trying unsuccessfully for more than a year to have a baby with her husband, Raymond, that Louise discovered the reason for her excruciatingly painful periods.
Louise had endometriosis—a difficult-to-diagnose gynaecological condition in which tissue similar to the lining of the womb (endometrium) is found elsewhere in the body, but most commonly in the ovaries, fallopian tubes and abdomen. Such tissue behaves just like the endometrium, bleeding every month, and can cause severe pain, heavy periods, and persistent exhaustion and tiredness.
It can also cause infertility—which was why, Louise was told, she couldn’t get pregnant.
“I had a scan that showed one of my ovaries could not move freely. It was stuck because of the endometriosis.”
Louise, aged 34 at the time, was informed she would need an operation to remove the abnormal tissue trapping her ovary. But it wouldn’t cure the endometriosis; the tissues would keep growing back. In the meantime, though, it would offer a small window of opportunity for her to get pregnant, her doctor said.
Louise went ahead with the operation and happily fell pregnant shortly thereafter. But she was devastated when she miscarried at 10 weeks.
After another miscarriage a few months later, she received the heartbreaking news that she wouldn’t be able to conceive naturally.
Louise and Raymond then embarked on intrauterine insemination (IUI), a form of assisted conception that involves placing sperm inside the womb and is often combined with the use of fertility drugs.
“We had four rounds of IUI, but it was unsuccessful,” said Louise. “And all the drugs and hormones I was taking made the endometriosis worse. It went from grade 2 to grade 3, and I ended up having to have another operation to remove the growths.”
Time for change
Frustrated, Louise decided to try and take back some control by doing her own research into endometriosis and infertility, and trying to find out if there was anything she could do to help herself.
She was put on the waiting list for in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and, in the meantime, she radically changed her diet and lifestyle, and even enrolled on a course at the College of Naturopathic Medicine (CNM) to learn more about nutrition and health.
“I wanted to do everything I could to improve the quality of my eggs and boost the chances of IVF working.”
Louise switched to an organic, anti-inflammatory, whole-food diet that included plenty of fresh fruit, leafy green vegetables and oily fish. She cut down on wheat and gluten, while alcohol, coffee, dairy, red meat and refined sugar were completely off the menu.
After learning about the importance of nutritional supplements at a talk on natural ways to boost fertility by leading nutritionist Dr Marilyn Glenville, Louise started taking a high-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement as well as extra zinc and maca powder. She also discovered that “stress can be a huge factor” when it comes to fertility, so she decided to take up yoga as a ‘time out’ from her full-time media job and weekends studying at CNM.
Raymond, too, made many of the same dietary and lifestyle changes. “He stopped drinking and started eating a lot better,” Louise said. “Fertility is down to both partners.”
Louise and Raymond’s main goal was to improve their chances of success with IVF, but after three months on their new healthy eating plan, Louise noticed an unexpected side-effect: her severe and chronic period pain disappeared.
“I could finally stop taking the painkillers I’d been on for most of my life. It was amazing,” said Louise.
This was soon followed by more good news once the couple started IVF. Louise fell pregnant and, nine months later, gave birth to a healthy baby boy.
“I felt so lucky,” said Louise. “And I loved being pregnant. All of my body’s hormonal imbalances went away.”
The couple felt even more fortunate after conceiving completely naturally not just once, but twice after their son was born. Now, four-year-old Leo has two sisters: Alexandra is two and a half and Scarlett is 10 months.
“I went from being infertile to extremely fertile,” said Louise. “I think once you manage to carry a baby, it kick-starts everything.”
Louise doesn’t know how much of an impact her change of diet and lifestyle had on fertility, but she says it certainly helped with her endometriosis. “If I don’t follow the diet strictly and eat as well as I should, the pain comes back. The same happens if I get stressed out.”
And she’s happy to report that she no longer takes painkillers, and recent scans have revealed no signs of endometriosis.
Louise was so inspired by everything she learned about nutrition that she decided to turn it into a career. She’s thrilled to be able to help her own family with her newfound knowledge and, now, as a qualified nutritional therapist, she’s also keen to help women with fertility problems like herself.
“Infertility can put your life on hold and take over everything,” Louise explains, “which is why I want to specialize in this area. It’s my way of giving back after being fortunate enough to have three children.”
Endometriosis: environmental factors
Mounting evidence suggests that endometriosis can be influenced by diet and lifestyle. Based on the studies done so far, the following self-help steps may be useful for sufferers.
Cut the caffeine. There may be a connection between caffeine intake and endometriosis and infertility. Women who consume more than 5 g/month of caffeine (about 1.5 cups of coffee a day) are nearly twice as likely to have endometriosis and be infertile as a result.1
Avoid alcohol. In one study, the risk of endometriosis was 50 per cent higher in women who indulged in any amount of alcohol compared with teetotallers.2
Eat more fruit & veg. In more than 1,000 women in northern Italy, those with low intakes of fresh fruit and green vegetables were at a significantly higher risk of endometriosis, as were also those who ate a lot of beef and red meat.3
Stay active. Women who reported frequent bouts of high-intensity physical activity had a 76 per cent lower risk of developing endometriosis than their less-active counterparts.4
Increase antioxidants. Women with endometriosis tend to have lower intakes of antioxidants (vitamins A, C and E, zinc and copper) than women without the condition, so getting more of these nutrients through either diet or supplements can make a difference.5 And for women with pelvic pain possibly due to endometriosis, taking vitamins E (1,200 IU/day) and C (1,000 mg/day) for two months can lead to pain improvement in more than 40 per cent of cases. In contrast, none of the women taking a placebo reported any pain relief.6
Boost omega-3 fatty acids. Both animal and test-tube studies show that omega-3s can help by reducing inflammation,7 although whether supplements will benefit women in real life remains to be seen. However, a daily dose of omega-3 (1,080 mg of eicosapentaenoic acid and 720 mg of docosahexaenoic acid) plus 1.5 mg of vitamin E has been shown to improve symptoms of dysmenorrhoea (painful menstruation), which can be related to endometriosis.8
Avoid toxic chemicals. Certain environmental pollutants, such as dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), appear to play a role in endometriosis.9 Experts believe that more than 90 per cent of human exposures to these chemicals come from food, mostly animal fat, so eating an organic, whole-food diet low in animal fats may be beneficial. Sunscreen chemicals have also been linked to endometriosis,10 so consider using only natural formulas based on zinc oxide or titanium dioxide instead.
No one knows exactly what causes endometriosis or how to cure it, so the goals of conventional medicine are pain relief, slowing its progression and relieving infertility if present. But all of the treatments prescribed—painkillers, hormonal drugs and surgery—are only supported by low-quality scientific evidence of effectiveness.1 In addition, gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists, among the most popular drugs for the condition, work by inducing ‘pseudomenopause’, complete with hot flushes, vaginal atrophy, mood swings and osteoporosis.2
Besides dietary and lifestyle changes (see page 66), the following alternatives may be helpful.
Chinese herbs. A review of the evidence found that Chinese herbal remedies are just as effective as the hormone drugs gestrinone and danazol for relief of endometriosis symptoms, yet come with fewer side-effects.3 A variety of herbs can be used, so be sure to consult a qualified herbal practitioner for personalized advice.
Acupuncture. This well-known pain treatment is both safe and effective for endometriosis-related pelvic pain in young women.4 In one study, acupuncture was just as effective, if not more so, than the drug danazol for relieving symptoms, while having far fewer side-effects.5
Biofeedback. A small preliminary study of five women reported that thermal biofeedback (monitoring skin temperature) significantly improved the pain and other symptoms of endometriosis.6 Other mind–body techniques like hypnosis and meditation may also help to control endometriosis-related pain.
Propolis. This gummy substance, collected by honey bees from leaf buds and tree bark, may be helpful for treating the infertility associated with endometriosis. In a preliminary trial of women with infertility and mild endometriosis, supplementation with bee propolis (500 mg twice a day for six months) was associated with a pregnancy rate of 60 per cent compared with only 20 per cent in those taking a placebo.7
College of Naturopathic Medicine
www.naturopathy-uk.com; tel: 01342 410 505
Louise Reid Nutrition