Endometriosis is a painful condition that occurs when the tissue that lines your uterus, called the endometrium, starts growing outside of your uterus where it doesn't belong. This can cause painful periods, pelvic pain between periods, and pain with sex. Endometrial tissue can also grow on the surface of the ovary or deep inside it and cause painful cysts. Mombolwa, an engineer who has suffered with endometriosis ever since she got her period at age 9, spoke to POPSUGAR about about how eating a plant-based diet gave her some relief.
What Has Living With Endometriosis Been Like?
"I didn't have much of a childhood because my symptoms pretty much hit the ground running," Mombolwa, now 28, said. Her excruciating menstrual cramps were treated as dysmenorrhea (extremely painful periods). "As a young girl I remember begging my mother to inject me with a stronger painkiller than the ibuprofen pills I had taken a few hours prior but with no relief," she said.
Aside from the intense physical pain, Mombolwa also said she has struggled mentally. "I have suffered serious stigma and trauma because of endometriosis at different points of my life, even early on while growing up in Zambia," she said, explaining that conversations around women's reproductive health and menstruation are taboo in many African countries. For example, in high school when she had horrible pains that caused her to vomit, the nurse sent her back to class. Mombolwa recalled the nurse's message: "Pains of the womb are natural and I need to toughen up."
Her painful symptoms persisted for years. "I bled profusely for a long seven days straight, curled into a fetal position with a hot water bottle squeezed between my midsection for what felt like all month long. I could write a book about the nausea and vomiting, indigestion, and the fatigue," she said. In college, she made frequent visits to clinics or urgent care facilities to get pain injections like hydrocodone, codeine, or morphine. She missed tons of classes, workdays, and dates. Fortunately, her partner was always there to help drive her to appointments and offer emotional support.
How Was Your Endometriosis Diagnosed?
It wasn't until 2015 (age 22), when Mombolwa was in college in Southeast Asia, that she was diagnosed with endometriosis. She didn't have her period but had the worst pain yet. "It would be three days before I would get the correct procedures and tests done on me," she said. She was first diagnosed with a UTI and sent home with antibiotics, which obviously didn't work. Then doctors considered the possibility of gastritis. An ultrasound eventually revealed an ovarian cyst on her left ovary.
"It was five centimeters by five centimeters in all its glory, and I was told I wasn't going back home that night because the cyst had a slight tear and had to be removed immediately," Mombolwa said. During this laparoscopic surgery, doctors discovered she had endometriosis. The definitive diagnosis of endometriosis requires surgery as none of the endometrial tissue appears on ultrasounds, CT scans, or MRIs.
"That day, I lost my ovary, both fallopian tubes, and essentially an important part of me."
In 2017, she found herself back at the hospital (a more-equipped specialist hospital in Malaysia), having to undergo another surgery. The initial plan was to remove another cyst on her left ovary, but Mombolwa said, during surgery doctors discovered far more damage created by the endometrial tissue, which would require an extensive procedure. "That day, I lost my ovary, both fallopian tubes, and essentially an important part of me," Mombolwa shared. She added, "I've been learning to live my life understanding that this is not my fault."
How Did Your Endometriosis Symptoms Change When You Went Vegan?
In 2018, three years after her first diagnosis, Mombolwa tried a plant-based diet. "I met a gynecologist in Michigan, and she had personal experience with endometriosis and eating this way," she said. "It helped her, it helped her patients, and [she] was positive I would be no different."
Mombolwa added: "I noticed improvements almost immediately! The first immediate symptom was no bloating and just generally feeling lighter. However, it took roughly 90 days before I noticed any real changes in my severe symptoms." After three months of being vegan, her period had shortened to just three days and her pain was milder. Plus, because she was eating a mostly raw, whole-food, plant-based diet, she dropped nearly 40 pounds in those first three months. "It was like walking on clouds!" she said.
"Every day since, I've wished I had done it sooner because it has changed my life," she said. She keeps her diet low in white starches like white rice, pasta, and bread, and avoids sugar and alcohol, which she found eases her inflammation and mutes the severity of her endometriosis flare-ups. "I can definitely see a huge difference in the pain. I simply don't take as many heavy-dosed pain killers anymore," she said.
Mombolwa's endometriosis symptoms aren't 100 percent gone. "I still curl up into a ball some months, and once I've figured out indigestion, nausea, and vomiting, I will be happy to report back," she said. But she's found a great amount of relief.
Experts Explain How a Plant-Based Diet May Help Ease Endometriosis Symptoms
Following a plant-based eating routine will provide a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. These offer an abundance of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that may help ease inflammation and reduce endometriosis-related pelvic pain, explained Valerie Agyeman, RD, a dietitian who specializes in women's health and the founder of Flourish Heights.
The fiber in plant foods can also "help feed the good bacteria in the gut, which releases substances that might help to lower levels of inflammation in the body," Agyeman said. And because endometriosis is an estrogen-dependent disorder, incorporating more fiber-rich foods into your menu may help disrupt the excess circulation of hormones, lowering estrogen levels.
Since eating a high-fiber, plant-based diet can also help people maintain a healthy weight, gynecologist Elena Rodriguez, MD, found that many of her patients who have endometriosis and switch to a plant-based diet notice improvements in pain. "Weight gain is directly correlated with high estrogen levels because estrogen is not only made in our ovaries, it is also made in fat cells," Dr. Rodriguez said. She recommends limiting the high-fat, highly processed foods that can cause weight gain, too.
If you're thinking of going plant-based, Agyeman said, "think variety!" There's always room for adding more plants to your menu. For breakfast, mix fruit and shredded carrot into your oatmeal, or add greens or cauliflower to a smoothie. Snack on nuts or add seeds to salads for omega-3s. (Mombolwa loves eating popcorn every day.) And for lunch or dinner, meal prep a big batch of cooked whole grains, veggie bean soup, or roasted veggies.
What Other Benefits Does a Plant-Based Diet Offer?
"My migraines completely disappeared, and I lost 85 pounds and have managed to keep it off."
Aside from a reduction in inflammation and pain, more positive things started happening for Mombolwa after switching to plant-based living. Three years ago, "I was 213 pounds with absolutely no control over my hormones, was at the hospital every month, and ate everything," Mombolwa said. "Now, I am physically fit and sometimes able to squeeze in a light workout on my cycle. My mental health is significantly better, and I no longer eat on autopilot anymore. My migraines completely disappeared, and I lost 85 pounds and have managed to keep it off."
Final Thoughts About Living With Endometriosis
"Although endometriosis is surrounded by so much loss — loss of time, loss of vital organs, loss of your social life, loss of opportunities, I choose to see the gain from it. I've gained a change in lifestyle which propelled my journey to self-confidence and self-worth, and I share my power with beautiful women around the world," Mombolwa said.
She also shared that managing her condition has strengthened her relationship with her partner. "My partner and I have shared almost a decade together dealing with endometriosis. He knows everything there is to know about my care; good, bad, and ugly," Mombolwa said. She added: "He also switched to plant-based, too, to support my lifestyle, and I am so grateful for my partner. It's really a love story in endometriosis."