In her teens, Erika Gray’s doctors described a daunting future for her: a life of pain control, birth control pills, and likely, a hysterectomy in her early 20s. At the time, she struggled with debilitating abdominal pain and heavy periods.
However, her mom wasn’t willing to accept that future for her daughter.
“My mom said, ‘Nope, that’s not how it’s going to be,’” recalls Erika Gray.
For teen girls, cramps are an inconvenient and all-too-common nuisance. But for Erika, the stabbing pain on one side seemed like something bigger.
She soon learned the cause: ruptured ovarian cysts. In fact, she began having the same cycle of pain and ruptured cysts every month.
Even after it healed, the pain continued, making it tough to keep up with her schoolwork and maintain a normal teen life.
“It wasn’t just pain,” she says. “I was exhausted, absolutely exhausted where you would’ve thought I had mono because I was just on the couch and couldn’t move.”
Through laparoscopic surgery, doctors discovered endometriosis was behind Erika’s constant pain and fatigue. Endometriosis is a chronic condition where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside it. Typically, it affects the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and pelvic tissue, leading to discomfort and reproductive complications.
Doctors removed the areas of endometriosis but warned Erika that this might not be a long-term fix.
“They said if I kept having these reoccurrences, then the hysterectomy would be the last frontier,” she says.
Endometriosis Pain Returns
After surgery, Eika felt back to herself for a while. She had started birth control pills to manage her endometriosis but soon started having extreme mood swings unlike any she had experienced before. Plus, the pain had returned.
In another surgery, the doctor found endometriosis – this time even worse than before.
“I remember thinking, ‘But you put me on a medication that was designed to improve this and in fact, you made it worse.’ And that was the first time where I said, ‘You know, I’m just not sure that all of these meds.’ We know what all these medications do, or we know some of the side effects or the unintended consequences that can come out of these medications.”
Progesterone for Endometrosis
That’s when Erika’s mom reached out to a functional chiropractor for help. There, Erika was put on an entirely different path, one of diet changes and supplements. She also started seeing a new OB-GYN, who prescribed compounded, bioidentical progesterone.
“We essentially shut my cycle off by taking really high doses of compounded progesterone,” she says. “And I did that for three years. I didn’t have a cycle and I was pain-free and my life was back.”
But after a while, she began having memory issues. Through testing, she uncovered super-low estrogen levels, similar to those of a post-menopausal woman.
To correct that, Erika decided to go off progesterone and then struggled with really irregular cycles for a while. To correct that, she tried the Wiley protocol, which involves administering hormones in a rhythmic cycle, aiming to replicate the hormone fluctuations a woman’s body naturally experiences during her menstrual cycle. With that, her cycles were balanced.
“That [the Wiley protocol] was really the thing that I felt made a huge difference,” she says.
The protocol requires regular testing of hormone levels under the care of a trained practitioner.
“I worked really, really closely with my OB-GYN,” she says. “I just don’t want anyone to jump in and take a bunch of progesterone without talking to their healthcare practitioner first.”
An Anti-Inflammatory Diet for Endometrosis
Playing intense water polo in high school, Erika was accustomed to carb-loading. She noticed that plates full of pasta left her feeling bloated and off.
“I really started gaining quite a bit of weight and I suspect that that weight gain was the carbs specifically,” she says. “The breads and the pastas ended up throwing my body into a state of inflammation and really encouraged the growth of that endometriosis.”
With the chiropractor’s recommendations, she shifted away from heavy carbs, particularly gluten and grains. Instead, she increased her protein and vegetable intake. At the same time, she added supplements like methylated B vitamins to help with hormone balancing.
“It became protein and veggies,” she says. “And then my weight went down. I just felt so much better and I looked better. I stopped looking puffy.”
Becoming a Mother After Endometriosis
All the changes she made allowed her to get pregnant – something she’d been told wasn’t possible. Erika went on to have another child naturally as well.
For years, her cycles were regular. In her 30s, her hormones began shifting again. She noticed signs of estrogen dominance such as breast tenderness, fibrocystic breasts, and shorter cycles.
She tried natural progesterone cream but eventually found that a niacin supplement paired with melatonin worked better to reduce inflammation and balance her estrogen. While we most often associate melatonin with sleep, Erika explains that it acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory antioxidant.
“I’ve noticed that was the thing that actually helped move my cycle back the fastest and really have a very, very pleasant period. The combination is absolutely incredible,” she says.
She takes melatonin a couple of hours before the niacin, which helps prevent the niacin flush, where the small blood vessels in your skin dilate or widen.
An Inspired Career
Erika’s health journey shaped her career. She now helps other women as a functional medicine pharmacist and is passionate about integrating alternative and allopathic medicine to inspire people to live healthier lives.
She’s also dedicated to helping others understand their genetic profiles, and to that end, Dr. Erika Gray is the co-founder and CMO at ToolBox Genomics and MyToolBox Genomics.
As for endometriosis, there are some predispositions from a genetic perspective that might set the stage. Certain genes play a role in estrogen metabolism and influence hormone receptors.
Her advice for other women struggling with painful periods or endometriosis?
“It’s almost that we expect women to have painful periods,” she says. “It’s almost like a rite of passage. But I would push back and say, ‘That’s not normal,’ Our periods should not be so debilitating that we can’t do anything with our lives.”
Also, push to get the care you need. She stresses that, as a consumer, you can order lab work on your own, even if your doctor won’t order it for you. Then, find a trained practitioner to help interpret the labs for you.
“The most common thing that women are told is that, when it comes to hormones, it’s in your head – and it’s not,” she adds. “You can take your health into your own control and don’t be afraid to do it. If your doctor, isn’t talking to you about diet and lifestyle and supplements that are tailored to you, then it may be time to find somebody else because it’s not in your head. You’re not going crazy. There’s an explanation for it. And sometimes we just need to take the time and get under the hood and see what’s going on.”
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