Perhaps one of the most frustrating things about having endometriosis — besides the debilitating cramps and long periods — is knowing that there's no known cure for the disorder that affects an estimated 1 in 10 women of reproductive age in the United States. After a diagnosis, which can take 10 years to get, people with endometriosis are often left to simply manage and treat symptoms.
The most common symptoms of endometriosis are painful periods, pelvic pain between periods, and pain during sex, explains Rebecca Brightman, MD, FACOG, a gynecologist in New York City and educational partner for SpeakENDO, a resource for endometriosis. But endometriosis is not one-size-fits-all, meaning "treatment has to be subjective to each patient as they experience symptoms," she says. For many people who feel frustrated by the chronic pain, making lifestyle changes or seeking out a natural approach can feel like the most helpful option — and that includes adjusting one's diet.
There are various "endometriosis diets" out there on the internet, but most are aimed at reducing inflammation in the body. Endometriosis is often referred to as a "disease of inflammation," so the belief is that by cutting out foods that are known to cause inflammation, endo symptoms can be decreased, too. Anecdotally, some say prioritizing whole foods, cutting out dairy and processed foods, or following a vegan diet can all be beneficial for endometriosis symptoms.
In truth, when it comes to endometriosis, not enough data exists to recommend one particular diet over another, Dr. Brightman says. In studies, researchers note that "diet is a potentially modifiable risk factor for endometriosis," but there are "no clear correlations between particular food products and the risk of endometriosis." But that doesn't mean that holistic approaches, such as changes in diet or acupuncture, are worthless. "Maintaining a healthy diet and a regular exercise routine will improve a woman's overall sense of wellbeing, and in some women, may lessen their symptoms of endometriosis," she says.
Perhaps more importantly, following an alternative approach can provide people with a sense of hope that these therapies will work — and that can be a good thing, Dr. Brightman says. So, although we can't definitively say what specific type of diet can be most beneficial for people with endometriosis, trying something can reduce stress and potentially make you feel better. "Stress can increase pain perception, so anything that lowers daily stress, may in fact lessen pain," she says. On the flip side, if following a strict diet that potentially won't address your symptoms makes you miserable, then that's probably a sign that you should stop.
Although it can feel intimidating to speak up for yourself in a doctor's appointment, it's important to talk to your doctor about your symptoms, Dr. Brightman says. They may have suggestions about the best way to address treatment, she adds. And be sure to tell them about any other treatments that you're pursuing — whether it's CBD, a supplement, or some endometriosis diet you found on the internet.