INTRICATE and complex, the human body seems to love nothing more than confusing us with its health-related antics.
Endometriosis, a painful and often debilitating condition that affects women’s reproductive systems, is a case in point. Frequently sufferers think that what they are experiencing - such as painful, heavy, or irregular periods, pain during or after sex, fatigue and problems on opening the bowels - is due to something else entirely.
In fact, the latest figures from Endometriosis UK reveal that, on average, a staggering eight years go by before a diagnosis is made.
Endometriosis is the term used to describe the condition where cells, like the ones in the lining of the womb (uterus), are found elsewhere in the body.
Stimulated to grow every month by hormones, these cells eventually break down and bleed in a similar way to the normal ones that leave the body during menstruation. Unlike a period, however, endometriosis has no way of escaping, which means the internal bleeding gets trapped, causing inflammation, pain and the formation of scar tissue (adhesions). Endometrial tissue can also be found in the ovary, where it can form what doctors call 'chocolate cysts', because of their appearance.
The causes of the condition are not fully understood, although several theories exist, one of which is that endometriosis is passed down through the generations. Scientists worldwide are looking into this as we speak, investigating possible genetic links between family members. There’s also a suggestion that endometriosis might come about due to a weakened immune system or because of environmental toxins, such as dioxin.
Another possibility is that endometriosis tissue particles somehow travel round the body through the lymphatic system or in the bloodstream.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the more endometriosis a person has, the greater their pain and discomfort, but this isn’t always the way. It’s not so much the severity of the condition that has an impact, rather whereabouts inside the body the the endometriosis is actually growing.
Endometriosis has even been discovered in areas such as the eyes and brain, as well as in some men who have undergone drug treatments involving exposure to oestrogen. Although the condition is as yet incurable, there are several treatments available which tend to focus on reducing the severity of symptoms and improving quality of life.
Most methods of treatment reduce or stop the body’s natural production of oestrogen, because it is this hormone that causes endometriosis to keep growing and bleeding. The drugs create either an artificial state of pregnancy or of menopause, although this is reversed when the patient stops taking them.
A healthy, balanced diet benefits everyone and helps increase overall vitality and well-being, so if you have endometriosis it’s well worth taking a closer look at what you eat, perhaps keeping a food diary to help, to see if nutrition can be improved.
Eating well and exercising will make your body fitter and your immune system stronger, not only increasing your energy levels but also your tolerance to medical treatments and your ability to deal with any side-effects. It should also help regulate bowel movements, regulate sleep patterns and make it easier to think clearly.
Those suffering with endometriosis can often feel isolated and alone, all too often far too afraid or embarrassed to talk to someone about what they’re going through. But it’s important to seek support from friends and family, not to mention medical professionals. Remember that your GP will have seen many cases like yours before.
You can also call Endometriosis UK’s helpline on 0808 808 2227, or log onto their website at www.endo.org.uk for a list of support groups in your area.
Having endometriosis may not be plain sailing but it doesn’t have to spell complete disaster.