Fibroids

Mere mention of the word tumor is enough to send a chill down anyone's spine. But as tumors go, fibroids are a rather docile bunch. That's welcome news for the women who are diagnosed with them.

Actually, the very word fibroid is a misnomer, according to Susan M. Lark, M.D., director of the PMS and Menopause Self-Help Center in Los Altos, California. It implies that the tumor consists of fibrous tissue. In fact, the tumor grows from the myometrium, which is the smooth muscle layer of the uterus. So the correct medical name for a fibroid is myoma or leiomyoma.

Fibroids remain something of a medical mystery. No one knows what causes them, although exposure to the hormone estrogen makes them grow faster, Dr. Lark says. Sudden increases in estrogen in the years preceding menopause may explain why fibroids are most common among women who are in their forties.

During this stage of life, called perimenopause, a woman's level of estrogen spikes upward, theorizes Gerson Weiss, M.D., professor and chairperson of obstetrics and gynecology at the UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School in Newark. Mean­while, the levels of other hormones that normally counterbalance estrogen stay the same. For fibroids, all that extra estrogen is the hormonal equivalent of fertilizer. The growths balloon-only to shrink during and after menopause, when estrogen production declines.

For much the same reason, fibroids often become larger during pregnancy, when a woman's estrogen level rises considerably. If the growths get too large, they can contribute to miscarriage.

About one-quarter of women over age 35 have fibroids. For reasons that scientists can't yet explain, the growths are three times more likely to affect African-American women than white women. Fibroids also tend to run in families.

In most cases, fibroids produce no symptoms. The growths are detected during a routine gynecological exam. Sometimes they occur alone; other times they form clusters. Each fibroid may range in size from as small as a pea to as big as an orange. Often the growths cause the uterus to enlarge, as it does during pregnancy. Even this doesn't necessarily produce noticeable physical changes, other than some vague discomfort.

Among women who experience problems with their fibroids, the most common complaint is unusually heavy menstrual flow. Scientists suspect that the growths interfere with contraction of the uterine muscles, which help regulate menstrual bleeding. If bleeding remains heavy enough for long enough, it can drain the body's iron supply, setting the stage for iron-deficiency anemia.

Fibroids can also contribute to spotting between periods and dull pain or feelings of fullness or pressure in the lower abdomen or back. If the growths press on your bladder or rectum, you might experience urinary incontinence or constipation. If they occur near your cervix, you might feel discomfort during intercourse. Fibroids have also been implicated as a cause of infertility.

If you have fibroids, you may want to try certain blended-medicine strategies to ease any discomfort that you're experiencing. Here's what experts say can help.

Best Choices

Nutrition

Adjust your eating habits. Building your meals around low-fat plant-derived foods can help reduce your estrogen level. The fiber in whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables binds with estrogen in your digestive tract, speeding the hormone's elimination, Dr. Lark explains. On the other hand, if you eat a high-fat diet, featuring lots of meat and whole-milk dairy products, estrogen goes back into the bloodstream, where it can spur the growth of fibroids.

Introduce yourself to soy. Among plant-derived foods, soybeans stand out for their ability to lower estrogen. They contain ample supplies of two compounds called genistein and daidzein. These plant estrogens, or phytoestrogens, fill spaces on cells where estrogen usually attaches. In other words, the phytoestrogens prevent your body's own estrogen from reaching cells.

In addition to soybeans, you can get genistein and daidzein from soy products such as tofu, tempeh, and soy milk.

Be generous with beans. As soybeans have gained fame for their phytoestrogen content, other members of the legume family have been largely ignored. But many kinds of legumes act as fibroid fighters. Pinto beans, for instance, have almost as much of the phytoestrogens genistein and daidzein as soybeans, according to James A. Duke, Ph.D. Other legumes rich in phytoestrogens include kidney beans, black beans, mung beans, lima beans, fava beans, and split peas.

Sprinkle with sprouts. Bean sprouts are also good sources of phytoestrogens. "As beans germinate, their total phytoestrogen content increases," Dr. Duke explains. He suggests adding generous amounts of sprouts to salads and other dishes.

Eat fish often. Among animal-derived foods, fish may have some value in fighting fibroids. The fish oil in cold-water species such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel has anti­inflammatory properties, which may help relieve fibroid symptoms.

Exercise

Stay active. Regular, moderate exercise is a good idea for everyone. But it can be especially beneficial for women with fibroids, says Anne Simons, M.D.

First, exercise reduces your estrogen level, which may help shrink fibroids. Second, it stimulates the release of your body's own pain-relieving, mood-elevating compounds, called endorphins. Third, it helps you maintain a healthy weight. Compared with slim women, women who are overweight have a higher risk of developing fibroids, becouse body fat raises estrogen levels, explains naturopath Jackie Germain, N.D., of Middletomn, Connecticut.

Visualization

See Your fibroids disappear. Knowing that you have fibroids can make you feel anxious. In turn, anxiety can disrupt your body's delicate hormonal balance, causing fibroids to grow faster.

To reduce anxiety, Dr. Lark recommends daily practice of the following visualization exercise: Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Breathe deeply. Imagine looking deep inside your reproductive tract. See a giant blackboard eraser wiping away your fibroids. Watch as your uterus shrinks to its normal size and shape. Notice how wonderful you feel. Enjoy the sense of peace and well-being. Open your eyes.

Home Remedies

Watch what you're drinking. Both alcohol and caffeine are processed by your liver, which also regulates the amount of estrogen in your blood. So stressing your liver with booze or caffeine-containing beverages, especially coffee, may allow estrogen to accumulate in your blood and stimulate the growth of fibroids.

Since caffeine and alcohol may not affect everyone in the same way, try giving up one of the substances for 6 to 8 weeks and see if you experience a reduction in pain and bleeding. If your symptoms improve, then you may have found the culprit. If not, try eliminating the other substance and see if this has an effect on your symptoms. If this elimination approach has no impact, then you can safely assume that caffeine and alcohol aren't your triggers.

Other Good Choices

Chinese Medicine

Make Blood flow freely. Practitioners of Chinese medicine attribute fibroids to an overaccumulation of Blood in the uterus, brought on by the stagnation of Blood and qi. The excess Blood solidifies and turns into tumors, explains Efrem Korngold, O.M.D., L.Ac.

For his patients with fibroids, Dr. Korngold may prescribe one of several different herbal formulas. One that's especially effective is Fu Ke Zhong Zi Wan, a combination of Chinese angelica (dang gui), bupleurum root, peony root, and other herbs. If Cold contributes to a patient's fibroids, Dr. Korngold will augment the herbal formula with warming herbs such as ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom.

Make your point against pain. Acupuncture has proved to be an effective treatment for fibroids, according to Dr. Korngold. For a do-it-yourself approach, you can stimulate the same points with acupressure. Apply steady, penetrating finger pressure to each point for 3 minutes.

  • liver 3, situated on top of your foot in the webbing between your big toe and second toe
  • Spleen 6, located four finger-widths above your inner anklebone on the back inner border of your shinbone
  • Conception Vessel 3, located on the midline of your abdomen, five finger­widths below your navel and one thumb-width above your pubic bone.
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