Natural Dietary Treatments for Fibroids

The same diet that helps regulate hormones in women may also reduce exposure to endocrine-disrupting pollutants.

Fibroids are the most common benign tumors in women. They can grow to a foot in diameter and affect the majority of women before they hit menopause. Although fibroids tend to be asymptomatic, when symptoms do occur, they tend to manifest as heavy menstrual bleeding—so much so that women may get anemic and experience a lot of pain. So, what can women do? I discuss this in my video The Best Diet for Fibroids.

Up to half go into surgery and get their entire uterus removed. “Although hysterectomy is generally considered a safe operation, complications occur in a significant proportion of patients” and, obviously, you can’t have kids any more. The alternative is a variety of hormone-modulating drugs, which can shrink the fibroids and provide relief, but many of these drugs have significant side effects, like bone loss, so you really don’t want to be taking them for more than a few months. What’s the bottom line? “There is currently no evidence to support the routine use of medical treatment in women with uterine fibroids.” No wonder many women turn to “complementary and alternative treatments…including exercise, diet, herbs, and acupuncture.”

Women who exercise seven or more hours a week do seem to have lower risk of having fibroids than women who exercise less than around 20 minutes a day, but exercise has never been put to the test for treating fibroids. Likewise, to date, there isn’t a single randomized controlled trial of acupuncture for the treatment of fibroids to help guide us. 

In terms of herbs, there are two Asian herbal preparations that show promise—a five-herb combo called Guizhi Fuling and a Malaysian ten-herb formula that contains “secret ingredients” that must not be that secret since they’re just listed in the study, as you can see at 1:50 in my video—and they seemed to work as well as a leading drug. The problem is that traditional Asian herbal remedies may contain a few extra ingredients, like arsenic, mercury, and lead, which have been detected in most of the samples tested from Asian market and health food store shelves, and not just a little. Some, apparently, had really toxic amounts. So, these two Asian herbal preparations “may reduce fibroid size, but there is insufficient evidence to support the efficacy or safety of these treatments.” And, certainly, don’t try to apply caustic herbs internally, as this can lead to scarring, stenosis, and ulceration.

Well, what about diet? In one of the largest studies of diet and fibroids, fibroid tumors were “associated with beef and ham consumption, whereas high intake of green vegetables seems to have a protective effect.” The researchers figured that the “association between levels of estrogen, diet, and breast and endometrial [uterine lining] cancers also may help us understand” why. Indeed, “[f]or breast and endometrial cancers, a direct association with the frequency of consumption of meat and ham was observed…whereas protection was conferred by high intake of vegetables and fruits.” Thus, there may be these shared risk factors between estrogen-responsive malignant tumors, like breast cancer, and estrogen-responsive benign tumors, like fibroids.

We know the presence of fibroids seems to correlate with an increase in the amount of estrogens flowing through your body, for example, and that women eating vegetarian diets have significantly lower levels of excess estrogen. Researchers are using this knowledge to try to explain why there are lower rates of endometrial cancer—that is, lining-of-the-uterus cancer—and possibly breast cancer among vegetarian women, but it could also help explain the fibroid findings. “The incidence of breast cancer among vegetarian American women (Seventh Day Adventists) is 60 to 80 per cent of the incidence among American women in general, and the incidence among women in Africa and Asia is even lower.” Why might vegetarian women have lower estrogen levels? A famous study in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that it was their “increased fecal output, which leads to increased fecal excretion of estrogen,” resulting in lower blood levels. Double the fecal output, in fact, as you can see at 4:07 in my video.

And, you can put it to the test. Maybe the same reason African-American women have more fibroids is the same reason they have worse breast cancer survival: too much estrogen in their bloodstream due to a less than optimal diet. So, researchers designed a study to see what would happen if they were switched to a more plant-based, higher fiber diet. Compared with the Caucasian women, the African-American women started out with much higher estrogen levels, again helping to explain their increased mortality from breast cancer. But, after they were put on a healthier diet, all of their levels came down, “suggest[ing] that a substantial reduction in breast cancer risk can be achieved” by adopting a diet centered around more whole plant foods. The same also appears to be true for fibroids, especially eating lots of cruciferous vegetables—broccoli, cabbage, and Chinese cabbage—as well as tomatoes and apples.

Women who underwent premature puberty, starting their periods before age 11, may also be at increased risk of fibroids later in life, and we know that higher childhood red meat intake is associated with earlier age of starting one’s period, though total protein and animal protein in general may contribute. For example, girls who eat meat tend to start their periods about six months earlier than vegetarian girls. Those who eat meat analogues like veggie burgers and veggie dogs start their periods nine months later on average, and a similar puberty normalizing influence was found with consumption of whole plants foods, such as beans. 

It could also be the endocrine-disrupting pollutants that build up the food chain. Researchers took samples of internal abdominal fat from women and found there appeared to be a correlation between the presence of fibroids with the levels of a number of PCBs in their fat. So, does that mean fish-eaters have higher risk of fibroids? Researchers did find a small increase in risk associated with the intake of long-chain omega-3 fats, mostly from “dark-meat fish consumption,” by which they meant fish like sardines and salmon. This could be because of “the endocrine-disrupting chemicals commonly shown in fish,” or it could just be a statistical fluke. It would be consistent with the increased risk seen among “sport-fish consumers.” 

Recognizing that diet and endocrine-disrupting persistent organic pollutants have been associated with a variety of gynecologic conditions, including fibroids, researchers looked at consumers of fish fished out of the Great Lakes and found a 20 percent increased risk for every ten years they had been eating the fish. In the most comprehensive study to date, researchers compared pollutant levels in fat samples from women with fibroids to fat liposuctioned out of women without fibroids. They didn’t just find higher levels of PCBs in fibroid sufferers, but also long-banned pesticides, like DDT and hexachlorocyclohexane, PAHs, which are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons formed when coal is burned, tobacco is smoked, and meat is grilled, as well as heavy metals, arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury. These levels correlated not only to fibroids, but also to seafood consumption or excess body fat. So, the researchers determined that “shedding excess weight and limiting seafood consumption would confer a protective effect” on fibroid tumor development by minimizing exposure to environmental pollutants as much as possible.

Okay, so a plant-based diet may be best, but is there a plant in particular that has been shown to be particularly powerful?

Plant-based compounds with disease-preventive properties, dietary phytochemicals are found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils, herbs, spices, nuts, and certain beverages. As I discuss in my video The Best Food for Fibroids, we know they can help regulate the initiation, promotion, and spread of cancerous tumors, so what about benign tumors like fibroids? Most anti-cancer drugs on the market now were originally derived from plants or plant products, so why not try to use plants to target the inflammation or blood supply of fibroids? Might fibroids be a consequence of chronic inflammation within the body? We know that women with fibroids are more likely to eat more beef and ham, and fewer fruits and green vegetables, but whole plant foods don’t just have anti-inflammatory effects but antioxidant effects as well. “If the generation of free radicals exceeds the protective effects of antioxidants, oxidative damage will occur,” which has been implicated in a variety of disease states, including gynecological conditions such as fibroids. 

If you collect fresh fibroids, as well as normal uterine tissue from hysterectomy surgeries, the fibroid cells have significantly fewer antioxidant enzymes, as you can see at 1:20 in my video, so might antioxidant-rich foods help? Well, if you drip some strawberries onto cells in a petri dish, you can apparently kill of some fibroid tumor cells, while leaving normal uterus cells alone. But, what good does that do us? That’s only relevant if we can show those strawberry compounds get absorbed through our gut and achieve high enough concentrations in uterine tissue. The same with curcumin, the component of the spice turmeric. One of its so-called “miraculous” properties is suppressing the growth of uterine fibroid cells, but, again, that was just in vitro. Yes, an inhibitory effect was found and at concentrations that don’t compromise the growth of normal, regular uterine tissue, but my patients are people, not petri dishes. 

It’s pretty neat to find out what happens to human fibroid cells as you drip higher and higher concentrations of green tea compounds on them in a test tube, as you can see for yourself at 2:19 in my video, but I care less about what happens in vitro or in mice, whether or not they have any clothes on—one study looked at “a nude mice model”—but there were no randomized, controlled clinical studies until 2013. 

Subjects were randomized to green tea extract or placebo for four months. In the placebo group, fibroid volume increased by 24 percent. That’s what fibroids do; they continue to grow. However, those randomized to the green tea group showed a reduction in total fibroid volume—and not just by a little. There was a dramatic decrease, shrinking by almost a third, which is a highly significant difference, as you can see at 3:02 in my video. Okay, but did the women feel any better? Yes, they experienced a dramatic decrease in symptom severity, as well. Month after month, nothing much happened in the placebo group, but those taking the pills that looked the same but happened to contain green tea compounds had consistent improvement and felt lessening symptoms, each month better than the last, as well as an improved health-related quality of life, month after month, that was significantly better than control. What’s more, their blood counts got better too. With all that continued excess blood loss every month, the blood levels kept decreasing in the placebo group, but they reversed in the green tea group. So, anemia also significantly improved, because average blood flow significantly diminished. And, all this—the fibroid shrinkage, less pain, better periods—was achieved with “no adverse effects.” 

So, not only were the results comparable to those for the drugs that are commonly used—again, without the side effects—but the results were also comparable to uterine artery embolization, where they try to cut the blood supply to the fibroid, which is great—unless they accidentally cut the blood supply to the rest of the uterus and cause uterine necrosis, one of many reported major complications. Others include death, not only of the fibroid, but also of the patient, along with other potential complications that may arise from accidentally clogging off non-target arteries. In my book, a side-effect-free solution as good as a more invasive procedure is potentially better than. The researchers conclude that green tea compounds show “promise as a safe and effective therapeutic agent for women with symptomatic UFs [uterine fibroids]. Such a simple, inexpensive, and orally administered therapy can improve women’s health globally.” 

Relatively safe doesn’t mean risk-free, however. Although there were no liver function abnormalities detected, this was a small study. If you give green tea extract pills to a thousand women for a year, like they did in the Minnesota Green Tea Trial for breast cancer, the livers in about 1 in 17 women started to get inflamed and a few became serious. Now, the dose they used in this study was twice that of the fibroid study and it’s not completely clear if the pills were the only cause, but, in general, we should try to avoid extracts and instead get nutrition from foods as grown—or at least from foods as grown that are then dunked in hot water, like green tea. 

The researchers had to use pills in this study, because they wanted it to be a double-blind study and it’s hard to create a placebo tea that looks, smells, and tastes like the real thing. I don’t think we should take green tea extract pills, though. We should drink green tea. The problem is that the dose the researchers used was about 11 cups a day, which would be a lot of caffeine. You could choose decaf, though, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility to drink a couple quarts of tea a day, especially if doing so may shrink your fibroids so much you can keep your uterus. But, for all we know, five cups of tea a day would work or maybe even three cups or one cup. No other dose has been tested, so we just don’t know. But, you can test it in your own life. If you have fibroids, it couldn’t hurt to add a few cups of green tea to your daily diet and see if you start feeling better.

And, for even more on fibroids, see Should Women with Fibroids Avoid Soy? and Talcum Powder and Fibroids.

For more on contaminated herbal products, see Get the Lead Out and Some Ayurvedic Medicine Worse Than Lead Paint Exposure.


I’ve got dozens and dozens of videos on the effects of diet on estrogens, such as:

In health, 

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

How Phytoestrogens Can have Anti-Estrogenic Effects

When the Women’s Health Initiative study found that menopausal women taking hormone replacement therapy suffered “higher rates of breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, and overall harm,” a call was made for safer alternatives. Yes, the Women’s Health Initiative found that estrogen does have positive effects, such as reducing menopausal symptoms, improving bone health, and reducing hip fracture risk, but negative effects were also found, such as increasing the blood clots in the heart, brain, and lungs, as well as breast cancer.

Ideally, to get the best of both worlds, we’d need what’s called a selective estrogen receptor modulator—something with pro-estrogenic effects in some tissues like bone but at the same time anti-estrogenic effects in other tissues like the breast. Drug companies are trying to make these, but phytoestrogens, which are natural compounds in plants, appear to function as natural selective estrogen receptor modulators. An example is genistein, which is found in soybeans, which happen to be structurally similar to estrogen. How could something that looks like estrogen act as an anti-estrogen?

The original theory for how soy phytoestrogens control breast cancer growth is that they compete with our own estrogens for binding to the estrogen receptor. As more and more soy compounds are dripped onto breast cancer cells in a petri dish, less and less actual estrogen is able to bind to them. So, the estrogen-blocking ability of phytoestrogens can help explain their anti-estrogenic effects. How do we then explain their pro-estrogenic effects on other tissues like bone? How can soy have it both ways?

The mystery was solved when it was discovered there are two different types of estrogen receptors in the body and the way in which a target cell responds depends on which type of estrogen receptor they have. The existence of this newly discovered estrogen receptor, named “estrogen receptor beta…to distinguish it from the ‘classical’ estrogen receptor alpha,” may be the “key to understanding the health-protective potential of soy” phytoestrogens. And, unlike our body’s own estrogen, soy phytoestrogens preferentially bind to the beta receptors.

For instance, within eight hours or so of eating about a cup of cooked whole soybeans, genistein levels in the blood reach about 20 to 50 nanomoles. That’s how much is circulating throughout our body, bathing our cells. About half is bound up to proteins in the blood, so the effective concentration is about half the 20 to 50 nanomoles. What does that mean for estrogen receptor activation?

In my video Who Shouldn’t Eat Soy?, I feature a graph explaining the mysterious health benefits of soy foods. Around the effective levels we would get from eating a cup of soybeans, there is very little alpha activation, but lots of beta activation. What do we find when we look at where each of these receptors are located in the human body? The way estrogen pills increase the risk of fatal blood clots is by causing the liver to dump out extra clotting factors. But guess what? The human liver contains only alpha estrogen receptors, not beta receptors. So, perhaps eating 30 cups or so of soybeans a day could be a problem, but, at the kinds of concentrations we would get with just normal soy consumption, it’s no wonder this is a problem with drug estrogens but not soy phytoestrogens.

The effects on the uterus also appear to be mediated solely by alpha receptors, which is presumably why no negative impact has been seen with soy. So, while estrogen-containing drugs may increase the risk of endometrial cancer up to ten-fold, phytoestrogen-containing foods are associated with significantly less endometrial cancer. In fact, protective effects are found for these types of gynecological cancers in general: Women who ate the most soy had 30 percent less endometrial cancer and appeared to cut their ovarian cancer risk nearly in half. 

Soy phytoestrogens don’t appear to have any effect on the lining of the uterus and can still dramatically improve some of the 11 most common menopausal symptoms (as compiled by the Kupperman Index).

In terms of bone health, human bone cells carry beta estrogen receptors, so we might expect soy phytoestrogens to be protective. And, indeed, they do seem to “significantly increase bone mineral density,” which is consistent with population data suggesting that “[h]igh consumption of soy products is associated with increased bone mass…” But can soy phytoestrogens prevent bone loss over time?

In a two-year study, soymilk was compared to a transdermal progesterone cream. The control group lost significant bone mineral density in their spine over the two years, but the progesterone group lost significantly less than that. The group drinking two glasses of soymilk a day, however, actually ended up even better than when they started.

In what is probably the most robust study to date, researchers compared the soy phytoestrogen genistein to a more traditional hormone replacement therapy (HRT) regimen. Over one year, in the spine and hip bones, the placebo group lost bone density, while it was gained in both the soy phytoestrogen and HRT estrogen groups. The “study clearly shows that genistein prevents bone loss…and enhances new bone formation…in turn producing a net gain of bone mass.”

The main reason we care about bone mass is that we want to prevent fractures. Is soy food consumption associated with lower fracture risk? Yes. In fact, a significantly lower risk of bone fracture is associated with just a single serving of soy a day, the equivalent of 5 to 7 grams of soy protein or 20 to 30 milligrams of phytoestrogens, which is about a cup of soymilk or, even better, a serving of a whole soy food like tempeh, edamame, or the beans themselves. We don’t have fracture data on soy supplements, though. “If we seek to derive the types of health benefits we presume Asian populations get from eating whole and traditional soy foods,” maybe we should look to eating those rather than taking unproven protein powders or pills.

Is there anyone who should avoid soy? Yes, if you have a soy allergy. That isn’t very common, though. A national survey found that only about 1 in 2,000 people report a soy allergy, which is 40 times less than the most common allergen, dairy milk, and about 10 times less than all the other common allergens, such as fish, eggs, shellfish, nuts, wheat, or peanuts.


What if you’re at high risk for breast cancer? See BRCA Breast Cancer Genes and Soy

What if you already have breast cancer? See:

What if you have fibroids? See Should Women with Fibroids Avoid Soy?.

What about hot flashes? See Soy Phytoestrogens for Menopause Hot Flashes.

What about genetically modified soy? See GMO Soy and Breast Cancer.

Not all phytoestrogens are beneficial, though. See What Are the Effects of the Hops Phytoestrogen in Beer? and The Most Potent Phytoestrogen Is in Beer.

How deleterious is hormone replacement therapy? See How Did Doctors Not Know About the Risks of Hormone Therapy?.

Synthetic estrogens used in animal agriculture are also a concern. For more on this, see Zeranol Use in Meat and Breast Cancer.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: