Complementary Therapies and Endometriosis

Before people get their knickers in a knot about me advocating “fake” medicine and pseudoscience, when I say complementary medicine, I am mean exactly that – complementary.  As in, it should complement your existing medical care routine, not be your stand-alone.  It should not be treated as a cure, but as another way of managing symptoms.

It is very easy, with a chronic illness, to become incredibly frustrated about the lack of progress we get from traditional medications.  I’m a big advocate of trying to take a holisitc approach to looking after ourselves, and that can include non-sciencey things as well.  I’m going to list some of the things I’ve talked about and how and why I think they can help, or why you should treat them with caution.

Before I do that, I want to acknowledge that this is in no way for everyone.  I do not encourage people to waste their money on charlatans peddling false hope of magical cures (some of which I do discuss below).  I do encourage people to explore what makes them feel good and better equip them to cope with the disease.

Yoga

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I’ve already touched briefly on the usefulness of yoga to people with endometriosis.  Part of it is mental.  Yoga forces you to slow down and concentrate on your body and the movements you are making.  This helps distract you from pain and this intense mindfulness can help build your ability to deal with it.  It also stretches your body, releasing tension and easing cramped up sore spots.  Finally, it’s a good gentle exercise that generally won’t trigger any pain but still lets you gently build muscle tone and get a small dose of exercise-related endorphines.

One thing I think is extremely important for people in Australia to remember when practising yoga is its origins.  When you think of yoga, or indeed, when you run a google image for it, you generally get a picture of a young, fit white woman (or sometimes man) posing on a beach or a mountain.  One gets the feeling that she will follow this up with an instagram-worthy brunch before returning to her light, bright apartment which will have a sign saying, “Good Vibes Only.” Now, I’m not knocking this girl – I’m in fact very jealous of her life.  The fact remains that most Westerners who practice yoga have totally divorced it from its very rich cultural history and chosen to take only the bits they like.  This is what we call cultural appropriation.  That’s where we take one particular part of another culture and reject, ignore, or outright mock and repress the other bits.

Further, what we call “yoga” isn’t actually “yoga” – it is one of the eight branches, or ashtangas, of yoga.  In brief, yoga is made up 8 ashtangas, which are:-

  1. Yama (being an ethical person by practising:
    1. ahimsa (non-violence);
    2. satya (truthfulness);
    3. asteya (not stealing, including learning to accept things as they are and not trying to fill your life with meaningless things);
    4. Brahmacharya (fidelity); and
    5. Aparigraha (non-covetousness).
  2. Niyama (practising self-discipline);
  3. Asana (being physically healthy by practising the physical discipline of what we call yoga);
  4. Pranayama (controlling your breathing, which is also often taught in yoga classes);
  5. Pratyahara (transcending the senses);
  6. Dharana (concentration);
  7. Dhyana (meditation); and
  8. Samadhi (the state of ecstasy reachable when all the other branches are practised to perfection).

That’s a simplistic breakdown and I encourage everyone to undertake further research.  Understanding and respecting these guiding principles is not only good cultural awareness, I think it can really be of benefit to anyone practising yoga for whatever reason.  It gives an ethical framework for life as well as practices to promote mental and physical health.  For people with endometriosis, anything that improves our mental health and helps us build self-discipline – one of our most difficult yet necessary skills – is a good thing.

Flotation

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Float-tanks are perhaps a bit weird-sounding at first.  You climb into a tank of high-saline water that allows you to float and achieve a feeling of weightlessness.  It is completely silent and completely dark.

Why do I think it can help with endometriosis, when it leaves you alone in the dark with your pain?  Because it allows you to do two things: take stock of your body and come to grips with your pain, and to relax completely.  It is incredibly hard to relax every muscle in the body when you are in pain, but tensing up just makes the pain worse.  I’ve never tried flotation, but it is billed as being incredibly relaxing, and I’ve heard from other people with endo that it’s amazing.  (Voucher for my next birthday, anyone?)

It’s also a change to escape from everything for a while, which is always welcome.

Massage

adult-alternative-medicine-care-356053.jpgLike floating, massage releases points of tension.  It also increases blood and lymphatic flow.  It probably can’t help your uterus directly, as that’s not generally a place you can or should massage, but endometriosis can cause referred pain and terrible tension.  Massage can help target those sore spots and literally force the tension out of your body.  I know that I often get a lot of tension in my upper back trying to compensate for my inability to hold in my stomach muscles without pain, or to protect my sore lower back.  Getting a massage in my upper back gives those sore muscles a break and reduces my overall pain levels, leaving me better equipped to deal with the endometriosis itself.

Homeopathy and Naturopathy

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Although different in the types of preparations they use, both homeopathy and naturopathy promote themselves as holistic treatments for the patient rather than the specific disease.  Naturopthy can include counselling, dietary advice, lifestyle changes, and herbal preparations.  Homeopathy is, from my understanding, more about “medication” made from a variety of substances, animal, vegetable and mineral, often without any scientific backing.  To me, naturopathy seems like a sensible approach that could easily complement a medical regime, whereas homeopathy smacks of quackery.  That being said, there are plenty of naturopaths who live in quack territory too, especially those who encourage ill people to abandon necessary medication in favour of “natural healing.” This, however, is coming from the perspective of someone who has never tried either.

I’ve previously mentioned the effects of herbs and why it can be a good idea to take herbal teas or supplements – e.g. turmeric is a natural anti-inflammatory without the stomach-irritating effects of ibuprofen.  I wouldn’t be accepted ground-up snake testicles or similar, as they have no proven effects on the body, but there are plenty of plant-based supplements with scientific backing.

If I were to go to a naturopath, I think it would be to seek help in managing all my complementary treatments – diet, supplement, massage etc.  If they encouraged me to abandon my hormonal treatments or painkillers, however, or suggested that they could cure, I’d be out of there like a shot.  My take?  Try these things if you will, but be wary.

Crystal Healing

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I don’t have much to say about this.  Crystals are pretty and the ritual of cleansing them and charging them may be relaxing, and carrying them with you may be comforting.   I love the symbolism in stones, just like I like that flowers all have symbolic meanings too, but I don’t necessarily believe that they are going to do anything that crystal healers say they will.  If it helps you, go for it, because anything that reduces stress and makes you happy is all to the good, but, cynic that I am, I would not invest too much energy or belief into the idea that crystals will work where medicine and surgery have failed.  Again, I strongly counsel against believing anyone who touts crystal healing as a cure.

Reiki Healing

Reiki is a Japanese form of healing.  The basic principle is the transfer of energy from one person to the other.

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I do not for a single second believe that this will have any effect on a disease.  It is not going to shrink our endometriosis or close up our surgical wounds.  What it may do, and what people who try it generally report, is enhance feelings of wellbeing and reduce stress.  It that’s what you go into it looking for, I don’t think you will be disappointed (although I haven’t tried it), because it sounds very relaxing – like a guided meditation with physical contact.  Again, stress-reduction can leave you better placed to deal with the pain and difficulties of daily life with endometriosis, and feeling good and optimistic is a pleasure that we should take whenever we can get it.  Revel in it.

Acupuncture

I’ve tried acupuncture – not for endometriosis, but for backache – and for minor pains I felt like it did help.  For more serious pain, it didn’t.  However, I know people who say they coulblurred-background-botanical-cacti-814058.jpgdn’t live without it.

As you may know, it involves sticking lots of little needles into different parts of the body, and, in some cases, running an electric current through them.  It’s not exactly pain-free, but I did like the electric current because it acted like a TENS machine and blocked the pain.

It’s an ancient Chinese medicine, and the theory is that in unblocks energy pathways for qi to flow through the body.  To be honest, I don’t know what it is doing on a physical level to alleviate pain, and research has been inconclusive both on that and on whether it is actually effective.  I think it’s another one of those things that each person has to try for themselves.

 

If you’ve scrolled down here looking for a tl;dr, here it is:

  • complementary therapies will help different people in different ways;
  • some are probably quackery whilst others are legit;
  • don’t give up on science-backed medicine;
  • be careful about which practitioners you are seeing and the claims they are making.

What complementary treatments have helped you?  Have you tried the ones on this list?  Any not here that you would recommend or warn against?

Beating Endo Belly: Dietary Approaches to Managing Endo Symptoms

Before you read any further, make sure you’ve read the title.  Diet can assist to manage symptoms of endometriosis.  It’s not a cure.  If anyone tells you that eating a certain way will cure you, roll your eyeballs as hard as you can.  Raw vegans of a clean-living bent are the worst for doing this, and I say this as a die-hard vegan myself.

Now, not everybody will experience flare-ups from the same foods.  Some endo-sufferes can eat anything and not have a single issue.  Others only have to look at a trigger food (food that triggers a bad reaction) to feel like they’re about to die.

Broadly speaking, there are two main diets that people with endo tend to adopt to manage symptoms.  Those who suffer mostly from uterus pain will probably opt for the Endometriosis Diet.  Those who have more difficulty with their gut may prefer the Low FODMAP Diet.  I’ve tried both, and experienced more relief from the FODMAP diet because I have trigger foods that aren’t excluded by the Endometriosis Diet (namely onion and garlic).  This is because of the endometriosis on my bowel, which is severely irritated by trigger foods.

The Endometriosis Diet

The Endometriosis Diet is a little more simple than the low FODMAP diet.  It is basically made up of foods you should avoid and foods you should eat lots of.

You should avoid:

  • Red meat
  • Processed meat
  • Trans fats
  • Refined sugar
  • Processed foods
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Unfermented soy (soy milk or cheese – tofu, tempeh, miso, soy sauce etc are fine because they have been fermented)
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Dairy products
  • Yoghurts that lack live cultures
  • Eggs

You should eat lots of:

  • Organic food
  • Cruciferous vegetables
  • Fruit and vegetables generally

It’s important to note that for the endometriosis diet, it is recommended not to eat the skin of fruits and veggies.  This is because of the risk of absorbing pesticides, that would put an extra load on already strained internal organs.

The aim of this diet is to eliminate anything that contains lots of hormones or has inflammatory properties, as these can all trigger endo flare-ups.  It’s very compatible with a vegan diet.  It’s obviously spectacularly healthy.

I didn’t have too much luck with this diet.  Eliminating sugar is really hard – fighting the pain and getting through a difficult day takes a heck of a lot of self-control, so I don’t have too much left in the tank to battle sugar cravings as well.  Thankfully, I find that, as long as I don’t binge sugar, it doesn’t have an effect (sugar binges absolutely do, though).

I can’t comment on what effect red meat, eggs or dairy might have on my endo, as I was vegan for quite a while prior to my diagnosis.

Alcohol is a trigger, so I have to be careful with that, although I do find it is drink-dependant.  I had a very small glass of whiskey (neat) the night before last, and I have been in nasty pain ever since.  It’s about a six as I’m writing this.  However, I’ve had a cosmopolitan or a gin-based cocktail before and been fine.  Either way, I definitely can’t drink a lot, and I should definitely avoid alcohol entirely if I have something big coming up.  Like trying to get to work on a Monday.

I can handle a couple of cups of caffeinated tea (green or black), but coffee makes me sick.  I think that’s more the gastritis than the endo, though.  I don’t seem to have a problem with soy milk, either.

Unfortunately, many of the foods that the endo diet encourages are massive triggers for me – garlic and apples both leave me in big pain, apricots play havoc with my bowels, and cauliflower has results that are no fun for anyone, me least of all.

The Low FODMAP Diet

Unlike the Endometriosis Diet, in which you just stop eating bad things, the FODMAP diet has two stages.  First, you eliminate all high FODMAP foods for six weeks.  Then, you slowly introduce FODMAP foods back in to see what you can handle and in what quantities.

FODMAP stands for Fermentable, Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides And Polyols.  Fermentable is stuff that needs to be broken down by the large intestine, and everything else is a sugar.  It gets very sciencey, and people who suffer really serious bowel-issues get incredibly technical about it.  I just have IBS because of the endo, and tolerate many foods just fine.

This excellent table from Monash University is a really good breakdown of good and bad foods, although it obviously isn’t exhaustive.

low/high fodmap food table

As you can see, this diet is also compatible with a vegan diet, and I’d recommend the facebook group “Low FODMAP Vegans” for support and ideas.  There’s also a fabulous recipe book called Low-FODMAP and Vegan: What to Eat When You Can’t Eat Anything, which is full of some really tasty recipes.  I particularly like the tempeh bacon.

Low-Fodmap And Vegan : What to Eat When You Can't Eat Anything - Jo Stepaniak

What I really like about this diet is how flexible it is.  You can really nail down what specifically causes you problems and in what portions.  For instance, I am fine with a bit of gluten (a bowl of cereal, a small sandwich, a slice of cake).  However, if I were to try and eat one of those massive sandwiches they make in restaurants with bread slices two hands thick, and then follow it up with a baked doughnut, that amount of gluten would have me reeling in pain.  I’m also far more gluten-intolerant during a flare-up.  I also used to be far less tolerant than I am now, but have slowly built it back up.  That being said, I do limit my gluten intake.

Having said all that, it’s not gluten itself that is the issue in the low FODMAP diet, it’s a particular type of sugar in gluten.  Baker’s Delight sells a great low FODMAP bread that isn’t gluten free but it perfectly fine for me.  However, many people who need the diet can’t handle gluten at all, so listen to your body.

In the end, I’ve managed to narrow my trigger foods down to the following:

  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Excessive gluten
  • Alcohol
  • Coffee
  • Excessive sugar
  • Apples
  • Cauliflower
  • Excessive beans/lentils/chickpeas

If I eat these things, I will be in pain.  Avoiding them doesn’t guarantee that I’ll be pain free, but it does mean I won’t have extra pain.

I would strongly encourage anyone with endometriosis to seriously consider trying either of these two diets.  Give either one of them six weeks and see how you go.  Worst case scenario, you’ve eaten a boring and restrictive diet for six weeks.  Best case, you’ll figure out how to make your diet work for your endometriosis.

Have you already tried one or both of these diets?  What works best for you?