It wasn't long after moving to the UK that Italy-born Laura Borghi started to get sick. "I moved in with a family in London when I was 21 to work as an au pair," said Laura. "I went from eating fresh food from the local grocery store to microwave dinners. I put on 15 pounds in three months and began to get really painful periods."
Doctors dismissed Laura's pain as 'normal' and told her to take painkillers, but it started to take over her life. "It was really debilitating," said Laura. "I'd get a stabbing pain in my abdominals and lower back around ovulation and just before my period that would last for two to three hours at a time. It made me feel sick, and once on the train I had to call my boyfriend at the time to pick me up as I couldn't walk from the pain."
Laura also suffered with premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and irregular cycles—symptoms she'd never experienced before.
It wasn't till three years later that Laura discovered that none of this was 'normal.' In fact, she had a gynecological condition called endometriosis, where cells similar to the ones lining the womb (endometrium) grow elsewhere in the body, causing problems like severe pain, heavy periods and infertility. These cells can be found anywhere in the body, but the most common sites are the ovaries, fallopian tubes and abdomen.
For Laura, it was her ovaries that were affected. "They found cysts on my ovaries they called 'chocolate cysts,'" said Laura, so-called because the contents are dark and tarry. She was told there was no cure for endometriosis, but she was offered surgery to remove the cysts, and the contraceptive pill to manage the symptoms.
"I refused the surgery because it scared me," said Laura. "But I did go on the Pill. I didn't know any better at the time."
Seeds of change
Laura took the Pill for two years, during which time her endometriosis pain stopped. "The Pill prevented me from ovulating and menstruating, so I didn't get the pain I'd usually get during those times," said Laura.
But Laura began to get concerned about the long-term effects of taking synthetic hormones, so decided to look online for alternative ways to manage her endometriosis.
Laura came across a nutritional therapist in London who specialized in endometriosis and made an appointment to see her. "She gave me a plan to follow," said Laura. "But she didn't really explain the reasons behind it and the causes of my condition. It all felt a bit rushed."
Nonetheless, the consultation "planted a seed" in Laura, who felt compelled to find out more about nutrition and its role in health and disease. After a little more online research, she came across the College of Naturopathic Medicine (CNM), a training provider in nutrition and other natural therapies, with several colleges across the UK and Ireland. Laura enrolled, in the hope that she could not only help herself but also change her career and potentially help others in the future.
A holistic approach
At the college, "things started to click" for Laura. "I learned that what you put in your body is so important," she said. "That starts with food, but it's also about your environment—the chemicals you put on your skin and use around the home. I started to really look at my body from a holistic point of view."
The first step Laura took toward this was to come off the Pill. "There are so many risks," said Laura. "And it was just supressing the symptoms."
This resulted in Laura's severe pain coming back, "much worse than before." But instead of feeling terrified and upset, as she used to, Laura started to see her pain "as a call from my body telling me something is out of balance."
"I realized that rather than fighting this condition in my body, I needed to listen, cooperate with and support my body from all angles," said Laura. "I started really listening and taking care of myself every day, not just when I was in pain."
A key part of this was a change of diet. Laura underwent food intolerance testing and discovered that she was sensitive to dairy, so she cut it from her diet completely. She also gave up refined sugar and red meat, and focused instead on fresh organic vegetables—especially cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, as well as organic poultry, wild-caught fish, and plenty of nuts and seeds.
The thinking behind this was simple: eat foods that have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body and that support healthy digestion and the liver, an organ that plays a crucial role in the body's detoxification processes.
"I had some genetic testing which showed that I don't metabolize estrogen well," said Laura. "This mainly occurs in the liver, so I need to make sure I support it."
Laura supplemented her diet with omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and probiotics, and took several anti-inflammatory and liver-supporting herbs including nettle, dandelion and licorice.
Laura also did her best to minimize her exposure to potentially hormone-disrupting chemicals in cosmetics, toiletries and household products. "I switched to natural makeup and shower gel, and use the bare minimum that I can," she said. "Your environment is just as important as what you eat."
Another important part of Laura's holistic approach was addressing emotional and psychological issues, which Laura believes played a role in her endometriosis. "Stress was definitely a big factor for me," said Laura. "And not letting go of things."
Laura employed various mind-body techniques and therapies to deal with this, including aromatherapy (see box page 70 for her favorite essential oils), Bach flower remedies, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT or 'tapping'), craniosacral therapy, meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, dance classes and simply walking in nature.
All of these helped in some way, said Laura, especially EFT, a self-administered therapy that involves tapping on acupuncture points on the body while focusing on something that is bothering you, and craniosacral therapy, a technique whereby a practitioner gently manipulates your skull to relieve pain and tension in the body.
"I saw a lot of doctors and gynecologists and they always referred to endometriosis as an isolated condition," said Laura. "But I think it has to be viewed holistically and tackled from all angles."
It didn't happen overnight, but gradually Laura's endometriosis symptoms improved, along with her energy levels and mood. Today, at age 36, Laura's happy to report that she's 99 percent pain free, and has been for the last four years. She does occasionally suffer from pain if she gets stressed or strays from her anti-inflammatory diet, but she always has a number of natural remedies on hand to help, like essential oils and ginger tea (see box, below), and doesn't have to rely on powerful painkilling medication.
Laura's 'chocolate cysts' on her ovaries have also shown signs of improvement. "They're still there, but they have shrunk," said Laura. "Scans have confirmed that."
Now a qualified nutritional therapist, Laura is helping others with endometriosis and other chronic conditions at her clinic in Blackheath, southeast London—using the same holistic approach she used to tackle her own condition.
"I definitely see things from a different perspective now," said Laura. "I value my health and body very highly and will never take them for granted again."
Endometriosis and your environment
Research shows that your diet and lifestyle can affect your chances of getting endometriosis. Caffeine, alcohol and red meat have been linked to an increased risk of the condition,1 while eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, getting plenty of antioxidant vitamins and minerals—like vitamins A, C and E, zinc and copper—and exercising regularly, seem to reduce the risk.2
Certain environmental chemicals have also been associated with endometriosis. One study found that women with the highest amounts of a common sunscreen chemical derivative known as 2,4-OH-BP in their urine have a 65 percent greater chance of having endometriosis compared with women with the lowest levels.3 Sunscreen chemicals are widely used in personal care products and can be absorbed into the bloodstream via the skin.
Pesticides, dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been implicated in endometriosis too.4 Much of our exposure to these chemicals comes from food, mostly animal fat, so eating an organic, whole-food diet low in animal fats may be beneficial.
Sticking to all-natural cosmetics, personal care and household products can also help reduce your risk.
• Endometriosis affects around 10 percent of women of reproductive age.
• Symptoms include painful, heavy or irregular periods, bowel and bladder problems, tiredness, insomnia, difficulty getting pregnant and depression. Some women have no symptoms at all.
• 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 when present. But the usual treatments—painkillers, hormonal drugs and surgery—come with significant risks.
• Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists, one of the most popular drugs for endometriosis, can induce 'pseudo-menopause,' complete with hot flashes, vaginal atrophy, mood swings and osteoporosis.1
Laura's top tips for managing endometriosis pain
Use essential oils. Mix one to two drops of essential oil with a good carrier oil and use it to massage around the pelvic area, soles of the feet and back of the neck.
"I like to use castor oil as a carrier oil as it has anti-inflammatory properties, helps balance hormones and boosts circulation and the lymphatic system," says Laura.
Essential oils can also be used with a diffuser or simply inhaled.
"Make sure to only use 100 percent pure essential oils and only use one to two drops at a time, as they are very concentrated," says Laura.
Laura's favorite essentials oils are:
• Clary sage ("great for hormonal balance")
• Lavender ("anti-inflammatory and good for relieving pain, reducing anxiety and stress, and improving sleep")
• Frankincense ("reduces inflammation and anxiety and has been shown to have anti-cancer properties")
• Rosemary ("anti-inflammatory, anticancer and balances hormones")
Drink ginger tea. Ginger tea is a great go-to remedy when pain strikes, says Laura. "Ginger contains gingerol, which has strong anti-inflammatory and painkilling properties," she says. Use one to two teabags per cup of good quality organic ginger tea.
Keep hydrated. Drinking two large glasses of water, preferably filtered or glass-bottled, can help alleviate pain, says Laura.
Get moving. Join a Zumba or salsa class, or simply dance in your room. "Music, coordination and sweating are a great combination, especially when they involve the hips and pelvic movement," says Laura. "This helps increase blood and lymphatic circulation—which helps bring more nutrients and oxygen to the tissues—aids detoxification,
and makes you feel happier too!"
Try breathing exercises. Breathe in through your nose for six seconds, hold for three and exhale through your nose for six. "This helps relax muscle tension and reduce pain," says Laura.
Useful contacts and resources
Laura Borghi: www.allyouneedishealth.com
College of Naturopathic Medicine: www.naturopathy-uk.com