Plants as source of new therapies for endometriosis: a review of preclinical and clinical studies

Hum Reprod Update. 2021 Feb 19;27(2):367-392. doi: 10.1093/humupd/dmaa039.


Background: Given the disadvantages and limitations of current endometriosis therapy, there is a progressive increase in studies focusing on plant-derived agents as a natural treatment option with the intention of achieving high efficiency, avoiding adverse effects and preserving the chance for successful pregnancy. The heterogeneity of these studies in terms of evaluated agents, applied approaches and outcomes illustrates the need for an up-to-date summary and critical view on this rapidly growing field in endometriosis research.

Objective and rationale: This review provides a comprehensive overview of plant-derived agents and natural treatment strategies that are under preclinical or clinical investigation and critically evaluates their potential for future endometriosis therapy.

Search methods: An English language PubMed literature search was performed using variations of the terms 'endometriosis', 'natural therapy', 'herb/herbal', 'plant', 'flavonoid', 'polyphenol', 'phytochemical', 'bioactive', 'Kampo' and 'Chinese medicine'. It included both animal and human studies. Moreover, the database was searched with the term 'endometriosis' for clinical trials on plant-derived agents. No restriction was set for the publication date.

Outcomes: Natural therapies can be assigned to three categories: (i) herbal extracts, (ii) specific plant-derived bioactive compounds and (iii) Chinese herbal medicine (CHM). Agents of the first category have been shown to exert anti-proliferative, anti-inflammatory, anti-angiogenic and anti-oxidant effects on endometrial cells and endometriotic lesions. However, the existing evidence supporting their use in endometriosis therapy is quite limited. The most studied specific plant-derived bioactive compounds are resveratrol, epigallocatechin-3-gallate, curcumin, puerarin, ginsenosides, xanthohumol, 4-hydroxybenzyl alcohol, quercetin, apigenin, carnosic acid, rosmarinic acid, wogonin, baicalein, parthenolide, andrographolide and cannabinoids, with solid evidence about their inhibitory activity in experimental endometriosis models. Their mechanisms of action include pleiotropic effects on known signalling effectors: oestrogen receptor-α, cyclooxygenase-2, interleukin-1 and -6, tumour necrosis factor-α, intercellular adhesion molecule-1, vascular endothelial growth factor, nuclear factor-kappa B, matrix metalloproteinases as well as reactive oxygen species (ROS) and apoptosis-related proteins. Numerous studies suggest that treatment with CHM is a good choice for endometriosis management. Even under clinical conditions, this approach has already been shown to decrease the size of endometriotic lesions, alleviate chronic pelvic pain and reduce postoperative recurrence rates.

Wider implications: The necessity to manage endometriosis as a chronic disease highlights the importance of identifying novel and affordable long-term safety therapeutics. For this purpose, natural plant-derived agents represent promising candidates. Many of these agents exhibit a pleiotropic action profile, which simultaneously inhibits fundamental processes in the pathogenesis of endometriosis, such as proliferation, inflammation, ROS formation and angiogenesis. Hence, their inclusion into multimodal treatment concepts may essentially contribute to increase the therapeutic efficiency and reduce the side effects of future endometriosis therapy.

Keywords: Chinese herbal medicine; bioactive; endometriosis; flavonoid; herb; natural therapy; phytochemical; plant; polyphenol.