Fibroids are a very common issue for women worldwide, especially those of childbearing age. Government statistics state that somewhere between 20-80% of women in America will develop fibroids by age 50.
This article claims an estimated 26 million women in the U.S. between the ages of 15 and 50 have fibroids. And according Johns Hopkins, an estimated 20-50% of women of reproductive age currently have fibroids, while up to 77% will develop them sometime during their childbearing years.
No wonder so many of us want to know more about fibroids.
What are Uterine Fibroids
Fibroids are also referred to as uterine fibroids because the develop in the wall of the uterus (which is also known as the womb). In scientific circles, they’re sometimes referred to as myomas.
Fibroids are hard growths that develop from the muscle and connective tissue from the uterus wall. They can be as small as one inch (around the size of a cherry; some are even smaller, like an apple seed) and as large as 8 inches (think grapefruit). You might have one, or you might have many. You might even have a cluster.
First the good news. By definition, even though they are tumors, uterine fibroids are non-cancerous and likely won’t turn into, or increase your risk for, uterine cancer. The Health and Human Services (HHS) Office on Women’s Health says that fibroids are almost always benign (rarely, less than one in 1,000 fibroids, will be cancerous) and Johns Hopkins says more than 99% of fibroids are non-cancerous. Both groups of experts advise that having fibroids doesn’t increase the risk for uterine cancer or other forms of cancer in the uterus.
But that doesn’t mean that fibroids should be ignored because they can cause symptoms that are problematic, including pain or pregnancy interference.
Who Suffers from Fibroids?
Are some women more likely than others to develop fibroids? Yes.
Your age plays a factor. Fibroids are most common in your child-bearing years, especially in your 30s and 40s. Post-menopausal, for many women, your fibroids shrink on their own.
Ethnicity can also play a role. Black women are more likely to develop fibroids than white women, and they are also more likely to develop fibroids at a younger age. Black women’s fibroids may grow larger and shrink less (even after menopause). And they may also come with more severe symptoms.
Your risk increases if a family member has fibroids, especially if it’s your mother, which makes your risk three times higher than average.
Your diet counts. For example, if you eat a lot of leafy green vegetables, you may have a better chance of not developing fibroids. On the other hand, if red meat and pork are regular staples of your diet, you’re at greater risk for fibroids.
Your weight counts too. Being overweight means that you are at a higher risk for fibroids, and if you are very heavy (obese), your risk is two or three times greater than average.
Some other risk factors include vitamin D deficiency, early menstrual cycles, no history of pregnancy, high blood pressure or regular alcohol consumption. Interestingly, with increasing numbers of pregnancies, the risk of fibroids decreases.
What are the Symptoms of Fibroids?
Most women with fibroids don’t have symptoms, but for those who do, the symptoms can be severe or confused with other issues. Here are some common ones:
- painful menstrual periods
- heavy (and longer) menstrual bleeding or vaginal bleeding between periods. (In some cases, excessive bleeding can lead to anemia.)
- frequent urination
- bloating or swelling in your abdomen or stomach area
- pain or pressure in the pelvic area
- painful sexual intercourse
- lower back pain
In addition, fibroids can cause reproductive problems, even, but rarely, infertility, or complications during pregnancy and labor. Fibroids carry a six-time greater risk of pregnant women needing a cesarean section (C-section) to give birth.
Is it a Fibroid or Something Else?
You might be confused by whether you have a fibroid or a polyp as both can grow in the uterus, and about 5% of uterine polyps can turn into cancer. Fibroids are thick, smooth muscle tissues while polyps are produced from the thin, endometrial tissue that lines the uterus, and generally are fluid-filled.
Endometriosis and uterine fibroids share a similar profile and symptoms.
You won’t be able to self-diagnose this one—your doctor will make the determination as to whether you have fibroids, cysts or endometriosis.
Even without symptoms, your doctor may discover your fibroids during your regular pelvic exam.
If your doctor finds what he or she thinks are fibroids, they will likely suggest imaging tests, such as an ultrasound, an MRI, a cat scan (CT), or a test that involves injecting x-ray dye or water into the uterus, followed by taking x-ray or ultrasound pictures to make a confirmed diagnosis.
These tests determine whether you have fibroids or some other gynecological condition that can be misdiagnosed as fibroids (or vice versa), including adenomyosis, endometriosis, polyps, PCOS, uterine or ovarian cancer.
It is possible that you might need to surgery—either a laparoscopy or a hysteroscopy—to determine for sure if you have fibroids.
When do Fibroids Need Treatment?
If it’s confirmed you have fibroids, you may be able to treat them with medications or surgery. Or, if you don’t have symptoms, you might not have to do anything except get them checked regularly during your pelvic exams to see if there are changes.
Here are some reasons to consider fibroid treatments:
- if your symptoms are painful and interfering with your day-to-day life;
- if you are hoping to get pregnant or are having trouble conceiving;
- the size and location of the fibroids;
- your proximity to menopause.
Treatments will vary depending on your symptoms and can include over-the-counter pain medications (such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen); prescription medications via tablet, nasal spray or injection); birth control (including oral contraception, intrauterine devices, injections); or other oral therapies.
There are also procedures or surgical options to consider, including:
- a uterine fibroid embolization (UFE) is a minimally invasive procedure that cuts off the blood supply to the fibroids, causing them to gradually shrink over several weeks or months. This procedure may require a short (or none at all) hospital stay.
- an endometrial ablation is another minimally invasive procedure that treats heavy menstrual bleeding by destroying the tissues in the lining of the uterus;
- a myomectomy surgery removes the fibroids but not the uterus, providing a strong option for women who hope to get pregnant;
- a total hysterectomy surgically removes the uterus, cervix, fallopian tubes, and ovaries while a partial hysterectomy may only take some of these; a hysterectomy for fibroids might only remove part (or all if needed) of the uterus.
Discuss these options with your doctor to decide what makes the most sense for you.
Can You Address Fibroids Naturally?
There are some herbal remedies that may help, but the body of research is not robust. For example, green tea contains flavanol antioxidants that may help reduce oxidative stress, which is associated with fibroid issues. Resveratrol, an antioxidant found in blueberries, raspberries and some other fruits, may stop the growth of uterine fibroids. And curcumin, an active ingredient in turmeric, is another anti-inflammatory antioxidant, one that might destroy or stunt reproduction of fibrotic cells. Read more here.
The same article from Medical News Today advises that a study found an association in premenopausal women that suggested those who ate more fruit and animal-derived vitamin A were less likely to have uterine fibroids.
What About Omega-3 and Fibroids?
So, can fish oil shrink fibroids? The jury is still out.
This post and this one offer similar, common-sense dietary patterns and specific foods that one might think would help with fibroids, as well as foods to avoid. In other words, eat a healthy diet that includes healthy fats, such as omega-3s, which are known inflammation fighters. The richest source of omega-3 EPA and DHA are fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and more.
We agree that a diet that includes omega-3s and other healthy fats, plenty of fruits and leafy green vegetables, fiber-rich foods and lean proteins—and avoids too many saturated- or trans-fats, processed foods and high glycemic-index sugary foods—are without a doubt a smart approach to good health overall.
As to whether or not this dietary approach will specifically help with uterine fibroids, let’s just say it probably wouldn’t hurt and is a dietary approach recommended by experts for many health reasons.
Although, this 2014 prospective study, the Black Women’s Health Study, noted a slight increased risk of uterine fibroids associated with long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.
On the other hand, this article reported on another study which advised no observed association between dietary fat intake and risk of uterine fibroids. In fact, the authors reported “a lower risk of fibroids among with women with higher [omega-3] polyunsaturated fatty acids erythrocyte levels (i.e., Omega-3 Index).” The lead author added this: “The inverse association we observed between [omega-3] polyunsaturated fatty acids and fibroids, if confirmed in future studies, could lead to dietary guidelines to reduce the risk of this prevalent condition.”
More research is needed to confirm that omega-3s should be in the toolbox for helping with uterine fibroids; in the meantime, there are other areas specific to women’s health where omega-3 fatty acids should also be considered.
For example, this blog urges that adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids is important for all women of childbearing age, noting a 2022 report from the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids that said that the most promising preventative intervention to emerge that safely reduced preterm and early preterm birth is maternal supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3s may also help with menstrual pain. This study concluded that women supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids resulted in a marked reduction in pain intensity during periods compared to those in the placebo group. And this study demonstrated that supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids was more effective in treating severe pain during menstruation than ibuprofen.
Not only are omega-3s known to help keep your heart healthy, but this article includes omega-3 fatty acids among the 23 supplements that may help improve female libido. According to the author, omega-3s can help reduce anxiety (when you’re feeling anxious, it’s hard to focus on feeling sexy), boost dopamine levels to promote arousal and stimulate hormone synthesis.
This randomized clinical trial in healthy postmenopausal women showed that supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids combined with moderate exercise resulted in a positive effect on estrogen levels.
Bottom line: And that’s not even all the general health areas where omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help improve health or reduce the risk of potential health consequences. While there may not currently be enough research to connect omega-3s as beneficial for fighting fibroids, there is more than enough research in other areas to encourage women (and men, too) to include fatty fish (or other omega-3 rich foods) or omega-3 supplements to protect and promote their health.