The National Institute of Health reports that 70-80% of women under 50 suffer with uterine fibroids, also called leiomyomas or myomas. These result in over 200,000 hysterectomies per year and are a cause infertility, depending on their placement, severity, and size. Usually benign, non-cancerous, growths in or on the uterine wall, they typically occur in women 35-45 years old.
Fibroids may have no symptoms or cause severe abdominal pain. Other symptoms are excess bleeding during or between periods, painful sex, constipation, urinary retention or frequency, and infertility. The tumors can be the size of a seed to the size of a cantaloupe. They usually shrink after menopause because excess estrogen is part of the cause. Ultrasound and a follow-up biopsy can confirm the diagnosis and rule out cancer. Typical mainstream treatments are hormone therapy or surgery, which could remove the fibroid or the whole uterus. In 20% of the cases, the fibroids removed by a surgery will regrow. In contrast, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which includes acupuncture and herbs, has been successfully treating fibroids for thousands of years.
How Fibroids Affect Fertility
Fibroids can affect fertility in several ways. First, they usually occur when estrogen is the dominant hormone in the body. If estrogen is dominant, then the progesterone is not strong enough to sustain the early pregnancy. Also, fibroids can prohibit the embryo from implanting in the uterine lining. They can cause muscle spasms and cramping which makes the uterus inhospitable for conceiving. Lastly, the bleeding between periods or heavy bleeding during periods can decrease the thickness of the uterine lining, making implantation difficult.
Fibroids and Ancient TCM
Fibroids are first mentioned in Ancient Chinese medical texts in 100 B.C. They are described as “stone masses” and abdominal masses or lumps. Diagnosis and identifying the pattern is key for treatment in TCM. Fibroids can be treated with acupuncture and herbs, reducing their size and relieving symptoms. It is possible to shrink them completely.
TCM Patterns for Fibroids
There are THREE main patterns for fibroids. In each of the three patterns, there is a weakness in the body that allows the them to form. The underlying weakness can be treated. These body weaknesses can be brought on by emotional factors like stress or anger, or a poor diet. The main symptoms are pain and bleeding. Here are the three main categories and accompanying symptoms:
1. Spleen Qi Deficiency with Liver Qi Stagnation and Phlegm or Damp Accumulation: digestive issues like gas, bloating, loose stools, pain or fullness in the lower abdomen or lower rib cage, emotional anger or stress, a “heavy” feeling, and excessive sighing.
2. Qi and Blood Stagnation: a stabbing pain that is worse with pressure in a fixed location, along with menstrual clots. Often, the tongue will have purple spots. The appetite may be affected and the complexion may appear sallow or gray.
3. Yin Deficiency with Heat: a tell-tale burning pain with small or multiple fibroids, or heat sensation in the chest, palms and feet. Often menstruation is irregular and excess. The breasts may feel distended and have an itching or burning feeling.
Herbal Treatment for Uterine Fibroids
There are several herbal formulas used to treat fibroids in TCM. These are prescribed according to the pattern, and can be tailored to the individual patient. The famous formula is Gui Zhi Fu Ling Wan (Cinnamon Twig and Poria Pill). This formula increases circulation in the abdomen and helps to reduce pain.
Acupuncture Treatment for Fibroids
Acupuncture is very effective in treating fibroids. The treatments focus on both local abdominal points as well as distal points to treat the underlying cause of the fibroids. Sometimes auricular (ear) therapy is also used. There are two main goals of treatment with acupuncture.
1. Balance the Hypothalmic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis. Acupuncture balances the nervous system, reduces the “fight or flight” hormones in the body, and activates the “rest and digest” response. The hormone and endocrine responses get out-of-balance when stress is high. Stress creates hormonal and neurological imbalances that acupuncture has been shown to correct. When hormones, especially estrogen and progesterone, are in balance, fibroids shrink. In addition, with improved hormone and nervous system function, fertility is also increased.
2. Bring more circulation to the lower abdomen. Acupuncture can increase fertility and reduce fibroids by increasing circulation to the lower abdomen. Better circulation combats one of the main causes, “blood stagnation,” as well as the other patterns of fibroids. When the uterus and ovaries are well-nourished with improved blood flow, they can function better. Acupuncture also helps reduce uterine spasms or micro-spasms within the wall of the uterus to shrink the fibroid and stop pain.
Lifestyle and Food Therapy
Lifestyle and food therapy can help reduce fibroids. Lifestyle changes have the goal of reducing the stress on the body. These may include practicing yoga, meditation, tai chi, or qigong. Also, improving sleep quality reduces stress. Daily abdominal self-massage can help improve circulation to the uterus.
Fibroids can be reduced by eliminating certain foods, depending on the pattern or diagnosis. For example, avoiding dairy helps reduce “phlegm” or damp pattern fibroids. There are also foods and teas that help the body reduce its estrogen-dominance. Raspberry Leaf tea can help balance the hormones if the estrogen is more dominant than progesterone.