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:

Which Rice Has the Least Amount of Arsenic: Black, Brown, Red, White, or Wild?

Brown rice contains more arsenic than white rice, but the arsenic in brown rice is less absorbable, so how does it wash out when you compare the urine arsenic levels of white-rice eaters to brown-rice eaters?

Arsenic in rice is a cause for concern, according to a consensus statement by the European and North American societies for pediatric nutrition. At the very least, “in areas of the world where rice consumption is high in all ages, authorities should be prompted to declare which of the rice [types] have the lowest arsenic content and are, therefore, the least harmful for use during infancy and childhood.” I look into the arsenic content of different rices in my video Which Rice Has Less Arsenic: Black, Brown, Red, White, or Wild?.

Extensive recent testing by the FDA found that long grain white rice, which is what most people eat, appears to have more arsenic than medium or short grain rice, but this may be because most of the shorter grains are produced in California, which has significantly less contaminated rice paddies than those in the South, such as in Texas or Arkansas, where most of the long grain rice is grown. So, it’s less long grain versus short grain than white rice versus brown rice, as the mean concentration of inorganic arsenic in parts per billion of long grain white rice is 102.0 and 156.5 in short, medium, and long grain brown rice, as you can see at 0:54 in my video.

What about some of the naturally pigmented varieties like red rice or black rice, which may be even healthier than brown? As you can see at 1:08 in my video, they may contain even less arsenic than white rice. One sample of black rice from China that was purchased in Kuwait had higher levels for total arsenic, so the toxic inorganic portion may only be half that, putting it on par with U.S. brown rice. The study’s red rice sample from Sri Lanka was even more extraordinary, with less than a fifth of the arsenic of the Chinese black rice. But, the Sri Lankan red rice sample had a ridiculous high amount of cadmium, evidently attributed to the cadmium content of widely used Sri Lankan fertilizers.

Colored rice samples purchased mostly in the United States were better than brown or white, and a dozen samples of red rice purchased in Europe were as bad, or even worse, as brown rice. I was hoping that wild rice would have little or no arsenic because it’s a totally different plant, but an average of eight samples showed it to be nearly comparable to white, though the wild rice samples contained only half as much toxic arsenic as brown rice.

As you can see at 2:06 in my video, the arsenic found in a daily serving of white rice carries 136 times the acceptable cancer risk, but brown rice is even riskier at 162. Brown rice averages two-thirds more toxic arsenic than white rice. But, is that just because brown rice tends to be a different strain or grown in different places? No. If you take the exact same batch of brown rice and measure the arsenic levels before and after polishing it to white, you do get a significant drop in arsenic content.

It’s not what you eat, though. It’s what you absorb. The arsenic in brown rice appears to be less bioavailable than the arsenic in white rice. The texture of brown rice may cut down on the release of arsenic from the grain, or perhaps the bran in brown rice helps bind it up. Regardless, taking bioavailability into account, the difference in arsenic levels in white versus brown rice may be a third more, rather than 70 percent more, as you can see at 2:57 in my video. This estimate, however, was based on an in vitro gastrointestinal fluid system in which researchers strung together beakers and tubes to mimic our gut, with one flask containing stomach acid and another intestinal juices. What happened when it was tested in humans? Yes, “evidence suggests that brown rice may contain more arsenic than white rice,” but the researchers aimed to determine how much is actually absorbed by measuring the urine levels of arsenic in white-rice eaters compared with brown-rice eaters. For the arsenic to get from the rice into your bladder, it has to be absorbed through your gut into your bloodstream.

As you can see at 3:45 in my video, the urine of thousands of American test subjects who don’t eat rice at all still contains about 8 micrograms of toxic, carcinogenic arsenic a day. It’s in the air, it’s in the water, and there’s a little bit in nearly all foods. But, eat just one food—a cup or more of white rice a day—and your arsenic exposure shoots up by 65 percent to about 13 micrograms a day.

What about those who eat a cup or more of brown rice every day, which technically contains even more arsenic? Their exposure shoots up the same 65 percent. There is no difference between the urine arsenic levels of white-rice eaters compared with brown-rice eaters. However, this was not an interventional study in which they fed people the same amount of rice to see what happened, which would have been ideal. Instead, it was a population study, so maybe the reason the levels are the same is that white-rice eaters eat more rice than do brown-rice eaters. Could that be why they ended up with the same levels? We don’t know, but it should help to put the minds of brown-rice eaters to rest. But would it be better to eat no rice at all? That’s what I’ll explore in my next few blogs.


 If you’re just joining in on this topic, check out these lead-up videos:

 

It seems like each of these videos just raises more questions, but don’t worry because I’ve got answers for you. See:

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:

 

Cancer Risk from Arsenic in Rice and Seaweed

A daily half-cup of cooked rice may carry a hundred times the acceptable cancer risk of arsenic. What about seaweed from the coast of Maine?

“At one point during the reign of King Cotton, farmers in the south central United States controlled boll weevils with arsenic-based pesticides, and residual arsenic still contaminates the soil.” Different plants have different reactions to arsenic exposure. Tomatoes, for example, don’t seem to accumulate much arsenic, but rice plants are really good at sucking it out of the ground—so much so that rice can be used for “arsenic phytoremediation,” meaning you can plant rice on contaminated land as a way to clear arsenic from the soil. Of course, you’re then supposed to throw the rice—and the arsenic—away. But in the South, where 80 percent of U.S. rice is grown, we instead feed it to people.

As you can see at 0:52 in my video Cancer Risk from Arsenic in Rice and Seaweed, national surveys have shown that most arsenic exposure has been measured coming from the meat in our diet, rather than from grains, with most from fish and other seafood. Well, given that seafood is contributing 90 percent of our arsenic exposure from food, why are we even talking about the 4 percent from rice?

The arsenic compounds in seafood are mainly organic—used here as a chemistry term having nothing to do with pesticides. Because of the way our body can deal with organic arsenic compounds, “they have historically been viewed as harmless.” Recently, there have been some questions about that assumption, but there’s no question about the toxicity of inorganic arsenic, which you get more of from rice.

As you can see at 1:43 in my video, rice contains more of the toxic inorganic arsenic than does seafood, with one exception: Hijiki, an edible seaweed, is a hundred times more contaminated than rice, leading some researchers to refer to it as the “so-called edible hijiki seaweed.” Governments have started to agree. In 2001, the Canadian government advised the public not to eat hijiki, followed by the United Kingdom, the European Commission, Australia, and New Zealand. The Hong Kong Centre for Food Safety advised the public not to eat hijiki and banned imports and sales of it. Japan, where there is actually a hijiki industry, just advised moderation.

What about seaweed from the coast of Maine—domestic, commercially harvested seaweed from New England? Thankfully, only one type, a type of kelp, had significant levels of arsenic. But, it would take more than a teaspoon to exceed the provisional daily limit for arsenic, and, at that point, you’d be exceeding the upper daily limit for iodine by about 3,000 percent, which is ten times more than reported in a life-threatening case report attributed to a kelp supplement.

I recommend avoiding hijiki due to its excess arsenic content and avoiding kelp due to its excess iodine content, but all other seaweeds should be fine, as long as you don’t eat them with too much rice.

In the report mentioned earlier where we learned that rice has more of the toxic inorganic arsenic than fish, we can see that there are 88.7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per kilogram of raw white rice. What does that mean? That’s only 88.7 parts per billion, which is like 88.7 drops of arsenic in an Olympic-size swimming pool of rice. How much cancer risk are we talking about? To put it into context, the “usual level of acceptable risk for carcinogens” is one extra cancer case per million. That’s how we typically regulate cancer-causing substances. If a chemical company wants to release a new chemical, we want them to show that it doesn’t cause more than one in a million excess cancer cases.

The problem with arsenic in rice is that the excess cancer risk associated with eating just about a half cup of cooked rice a day could be closer to one in ten thousand, not one in a million, as you can see at 4:07 in my video. That’s a hundred times the acceptable cancer risk. The FDA has calculated that one serving a day of the most common rice, long grain white, would cause not 1 in a million extra cancer cases, but 136 in a million.

And that’s just the cancer effects of arsenic. What about all the non-cancer effects? The FDA acknowledges that, in addition to cancer, the toxic arsenic found in rice “has been associated with many non-cancer effects, including ischemic heart disease, diabetes, skin lesions, renal [kidney] disease, hypertension, and stroke.” Why, then, did the FDA only calculate the cancer risks of arsenic? “Assessing all the risks associated with inorganic arsenic would take considerable time and resources and would delay taking any needed action to protect public health” from the risks of rice.

“Although physicians can help patients reduce their dietary arsenic exposure, regulatory agencies, food producers, and legislative bodies have the most important roles” in terms of public health-scale changes. “Arsenic content in U.S.-grown rice has been relatively constant throughout the last 30 years,” which is a bad thing.

“Where grain arsenic concentration is elevated due to ongoing contamination, the ideal scenario is to stop the contamination at the source.” Some toxic arsenic in foods is from natural contamination of the land, but soil contamination has also come from the dumping of arsenic-containing pesticides, as well as the use of arsenic-based drugs in poultry production and then the spreading of arsenic-laced chicken manure on the land. Regardless of why south central U.S. rice paddies are so contaminated, we shouldn’t be growing rice in arsenic-contaminated soil.

What does the rice industry have to say for itself? Well, it started a website called ArsenicFacts. Its main argument appears to be that arsenic is everywhere, we’re all exposed to it every day, and it’s in most foods. But shouldn’t we try to cut down on the most concentrated sources? Isn’t that like saying look, diesel exhaust is everywhere, so why not suck on a tailpipe? The industry website quotes a nutrition professor saying, “All foods contain arsenic. So, if you eliminate arsenic from your diet, you will decrease your risk…and you’ll die of starvation.” That’s like Philip Morris saying that the only way to completely avoid secondhand smoke is to never breathe—but then you’ll asphyxiate, so you might as well just start smoking yourself. If you can’t avoid it, you might as well consume the most toxic source you can find?!

That’s the same tack the poultry industry took. Arsenic and chicken? “No need to worry” because there’s a little arsenic everywhere. That’s why it’s okay the industry fed chickens arsenic-based drugs for 70 years. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

How can the rice industry get away with selling a product containing a hundred times the acceptable cancer risk? I cover that and so much more in my other videos on arsenic and rice, which also include concrete recommendations on how to mediate your risk.


Check out:

Pesticides were not the only source of arsenic. Poultry poop, too, if you can believe it! I cover that story in Where Does the Arsenic in Chicken Come From? and Where Does the Arsenic in Rice, Mushrooms, and Wine Come From?.

Chronic low-dose arsenic exposure is associated with more than just cancer. See The Effects of Too Much Arsenic in the Diet.

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: