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Barry Sears said it best in his book, The Omega Rx Zone:
“Fat has become a foul three-letter word in our society. We’ve become a nation of fat phobics, and some of us try to avoid this nutrient at all costs in an effort to lose weight and improve our health. Yet this war on fat has been completely misguided.”¹
During the time that I dealt with adenomyosis, the non-fat diet fad was quite popular. In my attempt to eat healthy, my ex-husband and I tried to buy as much non-fat food as we could, thinking at the time that this was the right thing to do. Boy, were we ever wrong!! My struggle with adenomyosis was at its worst during the time that I was on this non-fat diet – excruciating abdominal pain, very heavy menstrual bleeding with clots, severe bloating – it was just horrible.
After putting up with these monthly symptoms for several years, I read an article about the health benefits of flaxseed. I learned that this food contained high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and was found to be helpful in a slew of medical issues. I was intrigued. After years of different birth control pills, antispasmodics, and pain killers, I was ready to try just about anything.
I began to sprinkle ground flaxseed on just about anything I ate – yogurt, spaghetti sauce, salad…even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The taste was rather earthy if eaten on its own, but when added to these dishes, I couldn’t really taste it at all.
Several months went by, and I began to notice a significant decrease in my pain level and heavy bleeding. I still had problems, but it was definitely better than where I had been before I added flaxseed to my diet. This led to more research on omega-3s, and I quickly realized that a non-fat diet was, in fact, not healthy. I learned that some fat is necessary for optimum health. At the same time, I learned how the Western diet is overloaded with omega-6 fatty acids while deficient in omega-3s. Let me explain further.
Fat is needed for both immediate and reserve energy as it supplies two times as many calories per molecule as compared to carbohydrates or protein. It is needed for the formation of hormones, cell walls, enzymes and brain tissue. Fats are also needed for the proper absorption of many vitamins and minerals and for the proper functioning of nerve synapses.
Fats can be divided into two groups: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are known to increase cholesterol. Examples are lard and butter. Unsaturated fats can be further subdivided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature but cloudy when refrigerated. Examples include olive, peanut and canola oil. Polyunsaturated fats are liquid at both room temperature and in the refrigerator. Examples are fish, corn, soybean and sunflower oils.
Fats can also be found in their natural and unnatural forms. In their natural forms, the hydrogens of the fatty acid are on the same side of the carbon chain. Since these hydrogens naturally repel each other, the carbon chain will bend away from the hydrogen side. These kinks help the cell to be more fluid and flexible which allows a healthy exchange of nutrients in and out of the cell. Trans fats, widely regarded as very unhealthy today, are the unnatural forms of fats. These fats are made through a process called hydrogenation, and this process is known to destroy omega-3 fatty acids. The hydrogen atoms in trans fats are on opposite sides of the carbon chain, so no bending of the chain takes place, and they jam the “plug” for the natural fats. Examples of trans fats include partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, solid shortenings, hydrogenated lard, and solid margarine.
A specific group of unsaturated fats, called the essential fatty acids, are particularly important in overall health. These fats are called “essential” because they must be included in the diet as they cannot be made by the human body. Three classes of essential fatty acids exist: omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9. The omega-3s include alpha linolenic acid (LNA), eicosapentenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). The omega-6s include linoleic acid (LA), arachidonic acid (AA), and gamma linoleic acid (GLA). An example of an omega-9 fatty acid is oleic acid. It is a monounsaturated fat and can be found in olive oil, avocados, and nuts.
The omega-3 fatty acids help to keep cell membranes fluid and flexible which allows for effective exchange of nutrients in and out of the cell. These fatty acids in general produce good eicosanoids, a type of hormone. Good eicosanoids prevent blood clots, dilate blood vessels, reduce pain, enhance the immune system, and improve brain function. Since these fats are polyunsaturated, they tend to oxidize and turn rancid easily. To overcome this problem, the food industry came up with the process of hydrogenation as discussed earlier. Hydrogenation makes the fats more stable, but it also destroys the effectiveness of omega-3s. As a result, the Western diet is now dangerously deficient in these important fatty acids.
The omega-6 fatty acids are the most common polyunsaturated fat found in food. In general, they lead to the production of bad eicosanoids. These eicosanoids promote blood clots, constrict blood vessels, promote pain, and decrease immune and brain functions. Although this seems like a bad thing, it is necessary to have these fatty acids present for optimum health.
Both omega-3s and omega-6s need to be present in the human body in the right ratio. The National Institute of Health recommends the following daily intake of essential fatty acids:
EPA/DHA – 650 mg.
LNA – 2.22 g
LA – 4.44 g
With today’s Western diet that is predominant in processed food, our intake of omega-6 fatty acids is too high whereas our intake of omega-3 fatty acids is lacking. I found that when I added flaxseed (high in omega-3s) to my diet, my symptoms of adenomyosis reduced significantly. This makes sense as these fatty acids make the good eicosanoids which reduce inflammation. To reduce adenomyosis symptoms, I recommend getting the balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids back into a healthy range. Reduce your intake of processed foods and eat more natural and organic fruits and vegetables. In addition, get a good omega-3 supplement such as flaxseed or fish oil. You might be surprised at the results!
For more information, please check out my book, Adenomyosis: A Significantly Neglected and Misunderstood Uterine Disorder.
¹Barry Sears, The Omega Rx Zone: The Miracle of the New High-Dose Fish Oil (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc, 2002) 20.
When I was going through my struggle with adenomyosis, I could not get any relief from any medication that the doctors had given me. Believe me, I was put on a bunch of them. At the time, I had been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (which was incorrect as I found out many years later). I finally got to the point of looking into holistic treatments since these medicines weren’t helping me.
About 8 years into my ordeal with adenomyosis, I came across an article about the health benefits of flaxseed, an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. I was so impressed that I immediately ordered some and added it to all kinds of foods, from spaghetti to yogurt. To my shock and amazement, my symptoms began to improve!
This led to my thesis work for my Master’s degree in Holistic Nutrition. I ended up publishing my thesis titled “The Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease”. Remember, at the time I thought I was suffering from irritable bowel syndrome.
Although my symptoms had improved, they hadn’t gone away completely. Seventeen years into my struggle, I had a hysterectomy. The pathology report showed that I had deep, diffuse adenomyosis with possible fibroids. My symptoms stopped completely after this surgery. I was shocked to find out that I had actually had adenomyosis and NOT irritable bowel syndrome!
Recent research is now showing that there is a link between endometriosis symptoms and low intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Although as of yet I have not found studies on adenomyosis and diet, endometriosis is a similar disorder, and in fact the two disorders are often times seen together.
In 2010, an article was published by Stacey Missmer from Harvard University entitled “A prospective study of dietary fat consumption and endometriosis risk”. They analyzed 12 years of data from the Nurses’ Health Study II. They found that increased intake of omega-3 fats were associated with an decreased occurrence of endometriosis. In addition, those who had the highest intake of trans-fats were 48% more likely to be diagnosed with endometriosis. Their conclusion states that this “provides another disease association that supports efforts to remove trans fat from hydrogenated oils from the food supply.”¹
There are many other studies that have been done recently that have come up with similar conclusions. Therefore, if you have either of these disorders, it might behoove you to remove trans fats completely from your diet and increase your consumption of omega-3 fatty acids.
¹Source: Pub Med: Missmer, Stacey A. et al. “A prospective study of dietary fat consumption and endometriosis risk.” Channing Laboratory, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, published in Human Reproduction (Impact Factor):4.67), 03/2010; 25(6):1528-35.