According to the results of a recent study, breastfeeding is linked to a reduced risk for endometriosis.
Endometriosis is a chronic gynecologic disorder diagnosed in about 10% of women worldwide, that’s around 176 million (Rogers et al., 2009). There is a general lack of awareness about endometriosis that often results in delayed diagnosis because of a normalization of the symptoms. The cause of the disorder remains unknown.
Endometriosis involves the growth of uterine tissue outside the uterus, which among other problems, causes severe pain and excessive bleeding during menstruation. This internal bleeding can lead to irritation, inflammation, pain, and the formation of scar tissue (adhesions). Endometrial tissue can also be found in the ovary, where it can form cysts, called ‘chocolate cysts’ because of their appearance.
Other symptoms may include painful ovulation, pain during or after sexual intercourse, chronic pelvic pain, fatigue, fertility issues. Any of these can, of course, impact on a woman’s general physical and mental health and social well-being.
Anti-inflammatory drugs may help women cope with the pain, as can birth control, and more holistic approaches involving dietary changes and regular exercise. Conservative or definitive surgery may be used to treat women with lesions.
Suffering from endometriosis can be isolating for women and may have a serious negative impact on many aspects of their life and relationships. Endometriosis.org is a resource that provides a list of known endometriosis organisations around the world. These non-profits provide outreach, information, support, and advice for women with endometriosis and their families.
Farland and colleagues (2017) studied 72,394 women who had had one or more pregnancies. Amongst the participants of the study were 3,296 who had been diagnosed with endometriosis. What the study found was that compared with women who breastfed for less than a month per pregnancy, those who breastfed for a year or longer had a 32 % reduced risk for endometriosis. For each additional three months of breastfeeding, they reduced their risk by 8 %. Women who breastfed for more than 36 months in total across their reproductive lifetime had a 40% reduced risk of endometriosis compared with women who never breastfed.
The study controlled for body mass index, smoking, oral contraceptive use, age at menarche and other factors.
Lactational amenorrhea, that is the time during which women stop having periods after giving birth also reduced their risk for endometriosis, and exclusive breastfeeding prolonged this delay in the return of menses. Menstrual delay accounted for a portion of the effect of breastfeeding.
The study’s lead author, Leslie V. Farland, a research scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston emphasized the advantages to mother and child of breastfeeding and on the subject of the connection between breastfeeding and a reduced risk of endometriosis said, “Understanding risk factors for endometriosis that are modifiable is really important.”
Despite how difficult living with this condition can be, there is always hope and breastfeeding is another natural tool in a mother’s toolbox.
Farland, L. V., Eliassen, A. H., Tamimi, R. M., Spiegelman, D., Michels, K. B., & Missmer, S. A. (2017). History of breast feeding and risk of incident endometriosis: prospective cohort study. BMJ, j3778. doi:10.1136/bmj.j3778
Rogers, P. A. W., D’Hooghe, T. M., Fazleabas, A., Gargett, C. E., Giudice, L. C., Montgomery, G. W., … Zondervan, K. T. (2009). Priorities for endometriosis research: Recommendations from an international consensus workshop. Reproductive Sciences, 16(4), 335–346. doi:10.1177/1933719108330568