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The Straight Truth: Hair Relaxers and Fibroids

 

The incidence of fibroids in the United States is 2-3 times higher in black women than white women, with their likelihood of developing the benign uterine tumors estimated at 80% and 70%, respectively. Researchers have spent several decades investigating this racial disparity, and they continue to seek answers, as the phenomenon has not yet been fully explained. However, certain epidemiological links have been established through the research, yielding information that could help reduce the incidence of this all-too-common condition among black women – provided they are aware of it. Hair relaxers are an example.

In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, researchers investigating the racial bias of uterine fibroids hypothesized that endocrine-disrupting chemicals in hair relaxers could impact a woman’s risk of developing the condition. They found evidence to support this hypothesis in surveys amassed by a large-scale U.S. cohort study, The Black Women’s Health Study. The surveys, collected from 59,000 premenopausal African-American participants, asked questions about the use of chemical hair straighteners, including: age of first use, frequency of use, number of scalp burns experienced, and type of formula(s) used.

Of the women surveyed in The Black Women’s Health Study, 94% reported having used hair relaxers for at least 1 year. Of all the participants, researchers observed that women who used hair relaxers were 1.17 times more likely to have uterine fibroids than those who did not use hair relaxers. Almost a third of the women who reported using hair relaxers did so on a frequent basis, at a rate of 7 or more times per year. With this group, the incidence of fibroids increased to 1.23 times that of women who do not use hair relaxers. Research determined that the womens’ age at first hair relaxer treatment and the type of relaxer they used (lye vs. no-lye) did not impact the incidence of fibroids; however, both duration of hair relaxer use and the number of burns experienced were positively correlated with the occurrence of fibroids.

Hair relaxers contain a variety of toxic chemicals: lye-based relaxers contain sodium hydroxide; “no-lye” relaxers contain calcium hydroxide and guanidine carbonate; “thio” relaxers contain thioglycolic acid salts; and almost all varieties contain endocrine-disrupting phthalates, which often appear on a label as “fragrance” or “perfume”. All types – including the “no-lye” relaxers – have been known to cause burns and lesions on the scalp (despite advertising claims to the contrary), and such injury facilitates the entry of the chemicals into the body.

Phthalates, a group of hormonally-active compounds, can be absorbed topically (through the skin) or through inhalation. Studies have shown that certain phthalates have an estrogenic effect on cells. Fibroid tumors are estrogen-dependent, so chemicals like phthalates that disrupt the body’s natural estrogen production can potentially spur the development of fibroids.

Since cosmetic products are not subject to regulation by the Food and Drug Administration, manufacturers are not required to disclose all of a product’s ingredients on the label. Thus, while endocrine-disrupting chemicals like phthalates are ubiquitous in cosmetic products, their presence may not be readily evident. There are, however, certain indicators that point to the presence of phthalates. In a 2011 study, the research team of Wise et al. noted:

Because the vast majority of hair relaxers list ‘fragrance’ as an ingredient, and 100% of popular fragrances tested in a 2002 study were found to contain phthalates, most hair relaxers likely contain these chemicals. In addition, some hair relaxer products directly list phthalates as one of their chemical ingredients. (Wise et al. 2012)

Of course, phthalates are not the only endocrine-disrupting substance that black women – or consumers, in general – encounter on the day-to-day: chemicals known for their reproductive toxicity appear in products all around us, and without knowledge of their presence, consumers will continue to be subjected to the detrimental effects of those chemicals.

That said, the link between hair relaxers and increased fibroid risk is a significant discovery, both because it could partially explain the racial bias of uterine fibroids and because it serves as actionable information that enables women to moderate their exposure to the toxins that could contribute to the growth of fibroids. With this knowledge, women can make an informed decision about whether the potential cost of hair straightening treatments simply outweighs the beauty benefits.

 

>> SEE ALSO:  What Causes Fibroids: The Known Risk Factors

 

SOURCES:

Wise, L. et al. “Hair Relaxer Use and Risk of Uterine Leiomyomata”, American Journal of Epidemiology. 2012; 175(5):432-440

“New Study Finds Exposure to Toxic Phthalates in Decline; Consumer Demand for Safe Cosmetics a Factor”, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Jan 15, 2014 . Online. http://www.safecosmetics.org/about-us/media/press-releases/new-study-finds-exposure-to-toxic-phthalates-in-decline-consumer-demand-for-safe-cosmetics-a-factor/#sthash.YhCKOLu2.dpuf

 

 

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The Fibroids-Diet Connection

 

More than a decade ago, researchers identified a connection between a meat-heavy diet (specifically, the consumption of ham and beef) and uterine fibroids. The same study, published in the medical journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, produced evidence that diets heavy in green vegetables reduced the risk of developing fibroids. Since that time, numerous studies have sought to further explain the connection between diet and fibroid risk. Unfortunately, that research has yielded few answers, and the connection remains largely misunderstood and widely debated.

Foods Impacting Fibroid Growth

While no causal links have been established, there are clear themes emerging from study data. Multiple studies have correlated increased consumption of fruit, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products with reduced risk of developing fibroids. A study published in 2010 in the American Journal of Epidemiology was one such study. The research team of Wise et al. followed trends in the dietary intake of more than 22,000 premenopausal black women from the US Black Women’s Health Study over a 10-year period. Self-reported data from questionnaires gave the researchers insight into participants’ intake of dairy foods – including milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream – and nutritional components of dairy – like calcium, vitamin D, and butyric acid. The collected data revealed a connection between higher dairy consumption and a lowered risk of uterine fibroids. The researchers theorize that calcium and butyric acid (present in milk fat) inhibit the proliferation of cells that would otherwise form the benign pelvic tumors.

In a separate research effort, Wise et al. used the diet questionnaires collected from a cohort of participants in the Black Women’s Health Study to gather evidence regarding the link between fibroid risk and the consumption of fruits, vegetables, and carotenoids. In the December 2011 issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the researchers reported finding a reduced risk of uterine fibroids among the women with higher levels of fruit and retinol in their diets. These findings build upon those reported more than a decade ago by Chiaffarino and colleagues, who determined that a high intake of green vegetables has a protective effect against fibroids.

Margaret Wertheim, MS, RD, LDN, a Chicago-based dietitian, sees the same value in green vegetables. She advises her clients with fibroids to increase their intake of cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, and kale. “This group of vegetables, in particular, contains indole-3-carbinol,” she explains, “which research has suggested may prevent estrogen-driven tumors due to its effect on estrogen metabolism.”

While research has drawn attention to the protective effects of foods like dairy consumption and green vegetables, it has also revealed a heightened risk of fibroids associated with the consumption of meat products. Women whose daily diets include meats like beef and ham are – according to the research – more likely to develop fibroids than women who consume a strictly vegetarian diet.

Some research, including a 2010 study by Di and colleagues, has suggested that certain phytoestrogens found in soybeans, called isoflavones, may inhibit the growth of estrogen-dependent uterine fibroids. Contradictory evidence was produced by Radin et al, however, when they examined the soy intake of a subpopulation from the aforementioned U.S. Black Women’s Health Study and found no connection between soy consumption and uterine fibroid risk.

Fibroid growth is fueled by estrogen. Thus, in theory, any chemicals or nutrients that affect the body’s estrogen levels will impact fibroids in some way. Growth hormones in non-organic beef and phytoestrogens in soy are simple examples, but other potentially problematic substances are those that indirectly impact the body’s hormonal balance. For example, Wertheim recommends that women with fibroids watch their caffeine and alcohol intake. Both caffeine and alcohol stress the liver, which can make the liver work less effectively at metabolizing estrogen in the body. “With fibroids,” she explains, “you want to support the health of the liver by getting rid of alcohol and caffeine so it may optimally metabolize circulating estrogen.”

Finally, the role of vitamin D in affecting fibroid growth has been a subject of recent interest. A study published in a 2011 issue of Fertility and Sterility reported that vitamin D inhibits the growth of cells involved in uterine fibroid growth. The data produced by the researcher team of Sharan et al. suggested that low levels of vitamin D may be a risk factor for their developing fibroids.

Diet Modification: Does It Help?

Though certain dietary connections may seem clear, the implications of dietary modification for treating existing fibroids certainly aren’t. Bala Bhagavath, MD, an endocrinologist at the Center for Reproduction & Infertility at Women & Infants Hospital in Rhode Island, explains the limitations of the existing data in a 2012 article from Today’s Dietitian. He points out that the studies that have been conducted are all observational in nature; no interventional studies have been conducted to determine the effectiveness of diet modification as a treatment strategy. “It’s not known if modification of diet in women with established uterine fibroids will result in resolution of these tumors,” he says. “Even if they do, the length of time this dietary modification has to be maintained has to be established. It’s possible that dietary modification may decrease the incidence of fibroids in women at high risk for developing them. However, even this question of prevention remains unanswered at this time.”

Based on what we know (and don’t know!) about the fibroids-diet connection, it’s unrealistic to expect that dietary changes alone can eliminate and/or prevent fibroids. However, the knowledge that has been uncovered regarding dietary risk factors can be useful in guiding nutritional strategies that will support a broader treatment protocol. Simply understanding the impact – direct or indirect – that certain vitamins and nutrients have on fibroid growth enables women with symptomatic fibroids to make better dietary choices, avoiding foods that could worsen their condition, and possibly enhancing the effectiveness of other medical treatments as a result.

 

SOURCES:

Stewart, E. “Uterine Fibroids”, New England Journal of Medicine. 2015; 372: 1646-55

Chiaffarino et al. “Diet and uterine myomas”, Obstetrics & Gynecology. 1999; 94(3): 395-398

Tempest, M. “Uterine Fibroids and Nutrition — Studies Suggest Healthful Dietary Modifications May Cut Risk and Ease Symptoms” Today’s Dietitian. May 2012; 14(5): 40

Levy, B., “Modern management of uterine fibroids”, Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica. April 2008; 87: 812-823

Wise, et al. “A prospective study of dairy intake and risk of uterine leiomyomata”, American Journal of Epidemiology. 2010; 171(2): 221-232

 

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