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While medical researchers have not been able to pinpoint exactly what causes uterine fibroids in women, studies have suggested that family history, a diet heavy with red meat and obesity may all be contributing factors.
One study released this year by researchers at Boston University, however, suggested there may be a link between the kinds of hair relaxers used by millions of black women to increased instances of fibroid tumors.
Dr. Ray L. Howell, an obstetrician, gynecologist, and surgeon based in Atlanta who has specialized in women’s issues for 25 years, has co-authored the book, “Black Women and Fibroids: A Conversation with Black Women,” that cites the study conducted between 1997 and 2009, involving 23,580 pre-menopausal African-American women. The study found 7,146 cases of fibroids—a rate two to three times higher than for women who did not use relaxers.
The increased incidence may be linked to exposure to thyalates, chemicals added to the perfume portion of relaxers that may mimic estrogen-like materials that encourage fibroid growth. It is believed they may enter the body through scalp lesions and burns caused by relaxers.
Howell’s said the study was not conclusive enough to make a direct link between hair relaxers and fibroids and further study was warranted. It did urge women who use relaxers, however, to avoid getting scalp burns or scars from the formulas to reduce the chances of thyalates getting into the bloodstream.
Fibroid tumors grow in the uterus, generally are not cancerous and can be as small as a pea or grow as large as a melon. It is estimated that 20-50 percent of women, overall, have, or will have, fibroids at some time in their lives, while 80 percent of African-American women are likely to get them before the age of 50.
Fibroid tumors are 2 to 3 times more common in African-American women than other American women, tend to be larger, more numerous, more symptomatic, and black women get them at an earlier age. Fibroids can cause or contribute to pelvic pain, heavy bleeding, infertility, and miscarriages, and are the leading cause of hysterectomies for black women who have a threefold higher risk for hysterectomies compared with white women.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Services is conducting a fibroid growth study, funded jointly by the Institute and the National Center for Research on Minority Health and Health Disparities, to investigate why some fibroids grow and cause symptoms while others do not.
Studies done to date have not made definitive links to causes or patterns of fibroid development, but Howell has said there are interesting correlations that merit further study.
A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, for example, reported that women with higher glycemic index levels had an increased risk for fibroids. Sugary drinks, pastries, white bread and white rice all have high glycemic indices that can lead to blood sugar spikes and higher insulin levels, which are linked to other hormones believed to encourage the fibroid growth.
That study also said there was evidence that women who eat a lot of beef, ham and other red meats may be at a higher risk of fibroids, while diets rich in fish, green vegetables and fruit appear to decrease the risk. Women who ate two servings of fruit each day were less likely to have fibroids. The study said antioxidants in the fruit may reduce the risk.
Another study reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology of over 22,000 black women who consumed milk, cheese, ice cream, or other dairy products at least once a day were less likely to develop fibroids than those who consumed dairy more frequently.