Grappling with the fibroid diagnosis is taxing on a woman’s body as well as her mind. Hence, a growing issue for women with fibroids is weight gain. Making the connection between uterine fibroids and weight gain may help with the heaviness of a woman’s fibroids journey. Join me as I explore fibroids, weight gain, and the mounting questions that women have shared with Dr. John Lipman and the Atlanta Fibroid Center related to this issue.
What Are Uterine Fibroids?
Uterine fibroids are non-cancerous tumors found in the smooth muscle of the uterus. They are very common; particularly in women of color. Therefore, it is important that women know their risk and the symptoms related to this condition.
Who Is at Risk of Developing Fibroids?
Women of childbearing age, African Americans and those with a family history of fibroids, and obese women are the groups most at risk of developing uterine fibroids. African American women are 3 times more likely to develop fibroids than women of other racial groups. They also develop fibroids earlier in life (e.g., in their 20-30s), have multiple or larger fibroids and worse symptoms. They are also 2-3 times more likely to undergo surgery (ex. hysterectomy) which in many instances is completely unnecessary.
Identifying and treating fibroids means answering some hard questions.
What Are the Symptoms of Fibroids?
While fibroids are common, most do not cause symptoms nor do they pose a serious health threat. These masses can be as small as a seed or as large as a watermelon. While size can affect whether a woman has symptoms or not, it is actually more determined by the location of the fibroid. Larger fibroids on the outermost aspect of the uterus (i.e. subserosal) can be asymptomatic, while small fibroids underneath the lining (i.e. submucosal) can cause severe symptoms.
The most frequently reported symptoms are:
- Heavy bleeding
- Prolonged periods
- Pelvic pain
- Frequent urination
- Pain during sex
- Lower back pain
What Are the Symptoms of Uterine Fibroids Weight Gain?
Weight gain is a major concern for women with or without fibroids. There is no evidence directly linking symptoms of uterine fibroids and weight gain. This may be because the majority of women have small fibroids. As fibroids grow, they begin to weigh more and cause the uterus to expand. An enlarged uterus then leads to swelling in the abdomen, an area that women carry more weight. This combination of factors then gives the appearance of weight gain.
While there are commonly reported symptoms of fibroids, it is the unknowns and desire for answers that lead to stress and anxiety around health management.
What Is Known About Uterine Fibroids and Weight Gain?
Women naturally gain weight in their midsection and there are other factors such as lifestyle behaviors (i.e., lack of exercise, poor eating habits) and/or environmental conditions that cause weight gain as well. Where women live, work, and play impacts their ability to engage in routine physical activity. Also, encountering high-stress conditions (e.g., chronic unemployment, poverty, gun violence) can lead to weight gain. There is a new research underway where the environment, lifestyle, and fibroids (SELF) are being examined. The study is exploring how fibroids develop, what triggers their development, and how to prevent health problems they may cause.
Weight gain with fibroids is more noticeable, but may not necessarily be caused by fibroids.
Weight gain is also associated with unhealthy eating practices. There are certain foods that women with fibroids should avoid such as red processed meat, caffeine, alcohol, and foods high in fat and sugar. It is better to consume foods with Vitamin A such as oily fish, green vegetables and berries; whole grains, grass-fed beef, and citrus (apples and oranges).
Every woman diagnosed with fibroids will not exhibit the same symptoms. I know women whose symptoms were so severe that they had to have their uterus removed. Then, there have been others who have had no symptoms or complications. Fibroids are typically detected during a routine pap test exam, which may have been after experiencing one or more symptoms. After having other gynecological issues, my fibroids were detected during an unrelated procedure. From symptoms to detection to treatment, experiencing fibroids is a personal journey. It is important to learn what you can so that you can better understand yours or support others as they take theirs.
Weight gain with fibroids looks different for every woman, just like the “fibroid experience”.
Can Uterine Fibroids Cause Weight Gain?
Yes, fibroids can cause weight gain; however, there are other factors to consider. Most fibroids are small and virtually undetectable. However, they can grow from a range of 20-50 lbs. Weight gain from fibroids occurs when fibroids grow abnormally large. Fibroid growth may stimulate weight gain when left untreated fibroids. The largest recorded fibroid weighed 140lbs.
The eleven fibroids I had removed from my uterus only weighed 1.2lbs, which is the same weight as a pair of shoes.
A confluence of factors must be considered when determining if weight gain is caused by fibroids.
Fibroids can also cause weight gain through a lack of exercise. This can be seen even in the most dedicated exercise enthusiasts that suffer from fibroids. Fibroids are the number one reason why women have heavy periods. These heavy periods can lead to anemia (i.e. a deficit in iron and hemoglobin). This excess loss of hemoglobin (which carries oxygen in the red blood cells circulating in our body) leads to chronic fatigue. This causes women to decrease or give up exercise altogether. This often will result in weight gain too.
Why Do Women with Fibroids Look Pregnant?
Women with fibroids may experience noticeable changes in their abdomen. An enlarged abdomen may result from multiple factors. A woman’s abdomen may be enlarged due to swelling, bloating, and/or weight gain. Also, large, untreated fibroids as well as having multiple fibroids in the uterus can reshape the midsection. Each of these factors can cause the uterus to grow similar to the uterus of a woman who is pregnant. Some doctors use this method to gauge the growth of the uterus in a woman with fibroids. In general, the number of centimeters in uterine length equals the number of weeks-size pregnant uterus. For example, if the uterus measures 16 centimeters in length, that is equivalent to a 16-week (4 months) size pregnant uterus.
Prior to treatment, my uterus measured the same size as the uterus of someone carrying a 5-month old fetus.
With growth, fibroids may also cause abdominal swelling. The discomfort and tiredness experienced from swelling reduce a woman’s ability to engage in physical activity. Further, symptoms such as prolonged periods lead to continued food cravings accompanied by overeating.
The last factor that may lead to weight gain in women with fibroids is stress. Stress causes overeating and a redistribution of body fat both of which have been linked to the development and maintenance of obesity.
Obesity Is a Risk Factor for Fibroids
Excess weight is stored in the body as fat. Both weight gain and body fat are risk factors for fibroids. Markers of overweight or obesity such as body mass index (BMI), body fat content and body fat percentage increase the risk of developing uterine fibroids. Estrogen is stored in fat and increased estrogen will cause fibroids to grow. It is one of the reasons why African-American women disproportionately suffer from fibroids as they have the highest body fat composition by race. Women who are overweight or obese are up to 3 times more likely to develop fibroids.
Next Steps: What Should I Do With This Information?
There are multiple approaches used to treat fibroids. If you are concerned about or have experienced any or all of the symptoms associated with fibroids, be proactive. Make an appointment with a fibroid expert to discuss your treatment options. A treatment option that has helped numerous women get their health back after the fibroids diagnosis is Uterine Fibroid Embolization (UFE).
Will Fibroid Treatment (UFE) Help Me Lose Weight?
Uterine Fibroid Embolization (UFE) is a non-surgical, outpatient procedure that treats fibroids by blocking the blood flow to fibroids. It is covered by all insurance carriers and has transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of women that suffered from uterine fibroids. Once the fibroid’s blood supply is cut off, the fibroids will begin to die off. As this occurs, the woman’s symptoms begin to disappear. Smaller, less dense fibroids will result in weight loss. As the fibroids die, the uterus will significantly decrease in volume, and the once hard, dense fibroids are now smaller, softer, “bags of water”.
By three months after UFE, the patient typically no longer looks pregnant at all and the bloating symptoms she suffered previously have disappeared too. However, the most significant actual weight loss (in pounds) is often achieved by exercise, losing excess body fat, and healthy eating choices.
About the Author: Dr. LaShanta J. Rice is the Founder and CEO of Synergy Empowerment Solutions LLC, a public health strategies and consulting company that offers tailored, in-depth trainings for individuals and organizations. She is also an adjunct professor at Liberty University Online. Previously, she served as an Assistant Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and as an Associate Member in the Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina. She is a trained social and behavioral scientist and former Environmental Protection Agency Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Fellow. Dr. Rice was diagnosed with fibroids in 2007 and underwent a myomectomy in 2015.