Food can be potent medicine. Just ask Tia Mowry: In her new book, Whole New You ($20, amazon.com), the actress reveals how a healthy eating philosophy helped her ease the debilitating symptoms of endometriosis.
“Food is powerful and has a significant impact,” Mowry writes. “No matter what you put in your mouth—the good, the bad, or the Cheeto—it’s doing something.”
The 38-year-old, who hosts her own show on the Cooking Channel, learned this firsthand. Whether she was snacking on junk food on the set of Sister, Sister, or cutting out all processed foods in her 30s, Mowry has experienced both the negative and positive effects that diet can have on the body.
She was first diagnosed with endometriosis in 2006, after she began to experience severe abdominal pain. Endometriosis occurs when the lining of the uterus grows outside the womb. The condition—which is thought to affect more than 6.5 million women in the United States—can cause pelvic pain, cramping, and heavy bleeding during periods, as well as painful sex and fertility problems.
Mowry underwent laparoscopic surgery. Then just two years later, she was doubling over in agony once again. She had a second surgery, and took birth control pills and pain pills to manage her symptoms. But Mowry felt frustrated that there wasn't a more permanent solution. She also knew she wanted to have a baby, and that her condition could make it difficult. She was desperate to find another way to treat her disease.
When her doctor suggested cleaning up her diet, Mowry felt hopeful, she says in her book, even though it would mean giving up some of her favorite foods. (At the time, deep-fried cheese tortellini was her signature dish.) But Mowry was committed to making changes that might improve her health.
She eliminated dairy, processed meats, packaged snacks, and refined sugar. And began to fill her plate with plants (think leafy greens, fruits, nuts, and seeds), fermented foods, and high-quality protein (including beans, organic animal products, and organic, grass-fed meat). Mowry also added sea vegetables, like kelp and nori; and switched to what she calls "safer sweets," such as stevia, date sugar, and honey.
Her new diet drastically reduced her pain, Mowry says. (She also stopped getting migraines, and her eczema cleared up.) "I started to feel deeply, thrillingly alive," she writes. "For the first time in my life, I understood the concept of profound 'wellness.'"
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There's no question diet can play a role in endometriosis, says Kathy Huang, MD, director of the endometriosis program at NYU’s Langone Medical Center. "[It's] a very inflammatory disease, so any food that contributes to inflammation can exacerbate the patient’s symptoms. That would include dairy and any processed food," she wrote in an email to Health. "If the patient can stick to a low-inflammatory diet, it will help their health in general, not just their endometriosis."
Ken Sinervo, MD, medical director of of the Center for Endometriosis Care in Atlanta, seconds that advice. "In general, I recommend an anti-inflammatory diet, which eliminates refined sugars and carbohydrates, and uses organically-grown fruits and vegetables, and organically-raised meats, such as free-range chickens and grass-fed beef," he explained via email.
But both doctors pointed out that diet alone won't alleviate most symptoms of the chronic condition. Instead endometriosis treatment typically involves a combination of therapies. "We believe in a multidisciplinary approach with surgeons, [a] nutritionist, acupuncture, physical therapy, as well as [a] psychologist, and pain management physician," says Dr. Huang.
Mowry, who is now mom to a five-year-old son, knows that what worked for her may not work for others. “Although I’ve had my own powerful healing experience, that does not give me the expertise or credentials to offer specific healing advice to anyone with a serious condition,” she writes.
Her goal is simpler: to erase the stigma on healthy foods. "It’s not just because they’re packed with nutrients and are simply good for you. I’m determined to push past that stigma because whole, natural foods, cooked with love, taste absolutely fantastic," she says. "You heard me: fantastic.”
This article originally appeared on Health.com.