The information below was published in NWHN's newsletter in Sept-Oct 1999 by Andrea DuBrow. You can get an information packet about endometriosis by contacting NWHN directly.
Endometriosis is a puzzling, painful disease that may be linked
to environmental toxins. As with any complicated disease, there are numerous aspects
that deserve attention: hormonal, surgical, and alternative treatments; (in)fertility
issues; pain control; coping strategies; and research directions are among a few.
Long-time readers of The Network News may remember that we raved about
The Endometriosis Sourcebook in 1996, a comprehensive reference that finally
addressed background and emerging issues for women with endometriosis. We still
recommend this book for practitioners and women's health advocates, and particularly
for anyone experiencing endometriosis. The purpose of this article is to highlight
some of the potential connections between endometriosis and environmental causes,
and to draw attention to new research showing a heightened risk of some cancers
for women with endometriosis and their families.
is Endometriosis? < Endometriosis occurs when some of the tissue that
usually lines the uterus also grows in other parts of the body. This extra endometrial
tissue is most frequently found in the pelvic area: on the ovaries, external surface
of the uterus, ligaments, or fallopian tubes. These growths may build up and bleed
during menstrual periods. They respond to the hormonal influences of the menstrual
cycle, and because the tissue has no way to leave the body, it may cause internal
bleeding and scarring, inflammation, and/or the formation of cysts and scar tissue.
< Typical symptoms of endometriosis include chronic pain (particularly
in the pelvic region), pain when menstruating, pain with sex, infertility, and
painful bowel movements or urination. Interesting new findings reported by the
Endometriosis Association also link endometriosis to chronic fatigue and chemical
sensitivities and/or allergies.
What causes Endometriosis?
< Originally thought of as a disease of the endocrine system, new theories
are emerging that may link endometriosis to immune dysfunction. In 1992, the Endometriosis
Association< published an article reporting on research that showed a very
high rate of endometriosis in rhesus monkeys exposed to dioxin.* The study sparked
additional interest in the possible link between dioxins, PCBs (polychlorinated
biphenyls) and endometriosis. Dioxins and PCBs are organochlorines, made from
combining chlorine with organic substances, such as petrochemicals. Organochlorines
can take hundreds of years to break down completely and are stored in fatty tissues
of animals and humans. Endometriosis may be the first human disease definitely
linked to hormonal and immunological disruption due to pollutants.
in the U.S. in 1979, PCBs were used widely as electrical insulators, and in the
manufacture of paint and inks. Discharged by industrial plants as wastewater,
PCBs now contaminate water and soil. Dioxin, another environmental pollutant,
is created from the incineration of toxic waste and municipal garbage, and the
manufacturing and use of certain herbicides, pesticides, and solvents. In animals,
dioxin is known to cause immune suppression, cancer, and birth defects. Over the
past several years, increasing attention has been paid by the scientific community
to the possibility that dioxin exposure may be linked to endometriosis. Articles
have appeared in Science magazine, Scientific American, and other scientific publications
on the dioxin-endometriosis connection, and studies are being conducted to explore
Recent studies suggest another link among endometriosis, environmental pollutants,
and changes in the immune system. The Endometriosis
Association's research registry tracks health problems that are reported by
women with endometriosis and their families. This tracking shows higher rates
of immune-related problems and diseases than are found in the general population,
ranging from allergies and chemical sensitivities to severe autoimmune disorders
such as lupus.
Some studies suggest that endometriosis is associated with
changes in systemic immunity and, that cytokines (substances produced by cells
in the immune system) may influence the ability of endometrial growths to spread
and flourish where they don't belong. A fairly recent realization is that environmental
pollutants like dioxin also have profound immunological impacts. While the precise
impact of environmental pollutants on humans is unknown, endometriosis may be
the first human disease definitely linked to hormonal and immunological disruption
due to pollutnts. The Endometriosis Association asserts that if dioxins, which
are known carcinogens, are capable of causing endometriosis, perhaps women with
endomeriosis (and their families who shared their environmental exposures) might
be at risk for cancer, too.
Higher Risks of Cancer and Autoimmune Diseases.
The Endometriosis Association registry has collected reports which show
that women with endometriosis, and their families, are more likely to be diagnosed
with a number of cancers and other health problems, including breast cancer, melanoma,
ovarian cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and diabetes than would be expected in
the general population. For example, 26% of the women with endometriosis in the
registry have a family member with breast cancer.
Even though endometriosis
is very common, there are relatively few published studies that look at its possible
link with other diseases. A Swedish study of 20,686 women with endometriosis found
an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. A study
conducted at Harvard Medical School found an increased risk of melanoma. Other
conditions which were reported statistically significantly more often by women
with endometriosis and their families in the registry included thyroid disorders,
and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis
and Meniere's disease.
According to the Endometriosis Association, many
of the women in these studies may face even higher risks for cancer. This is because
the study participants with endometriosis tend to be younger women (in their teens,
20s and 30s), and most cancers occur more frequently in older age groups. Therefore,
they may become even more common as the study population ages.
In an effort to advance research on endometriosis and related health
problems, the Endometriosis Association is entering a partnership with Vanderbilt
University School of Medicine to conduct additional research on endometriosis,
including the immunological spects of the disease. This is the first time that
a major medical institution has committed $2 million in funding, along with institutional
support and laboratory facilities dedicated to studying the endocrine, immune,
and environmental elements that may contribute to endometriosis.
For more information, readers may contact the Endometriosis
Association at 8585 N. 76th Place, Milwaukee, WI, 53223 or call toll-free 1-800-992-3636.
Association newsletter, Volume 13, No. 2,1992.
- Ballweg, M. (1996).
The Endometriosis Sourcebook, Contemporary Books, Chicago.
Documentary Film on a Related Topic
Those interested in an in-depth exploration of the environment and breast cancer
will appreciate Rachel's Daughters: Search for the Causes of Breast Cancer. Co-produced
by film documentarians and activists, the film explores the many lines of evidence
that connect the stunning 50-year increase of breast cancer in the United States
with the simultaneous spread of persistent organic pollutants.
is available from:
462 Broad- way, #500
New York, NY 10013
The Breast Cancer Fund distributes a Community Action and Resource Guide to be
used along with the film. For a sample copy, send $5 to
282 Second Street, 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94105
October 18, 2007
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