WOMEN AND THEIR HEALTH

General basic good health

Like everyone else, women need good nourishment in order to stay healthy. In fact, they have a special responsibility to keep themselves healthy. There is so much that depends on them.

The days of the stay-at-home wife and mother are pretty well over, but in addition to pursuing their careers, women are also still the caregivers of the world.

They are on constant call for their children (from babyhood through childhood and the teenage years and even beyond), their partners (behind every healthy and happy man is a caring wife!) and eventually their parents as they get old and need extra attention.

All these responsibilities mean that there is often not enough ‘me time’ where they can take care of themselves. Even if life is very hectic, however, there are some things that can and should be done.

What are some of the things that need to be done?

* Get regular exercise! Even only 30 minutes of energetic physical activity accumulated over the course of the day can do wonders for you. You will look better and feel better, both mentally and physically. An added bonus is that exercise reduces the risk of developing breast cancer!

* Stop smoking or taking other drugs. Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in North America and a risk factor for breast cancer.

* Drink alcohol in moderation – for females that means no more than 1 drink a day!

* Work on your attitude! Happy people enjoy much better health than those who are isolated, unhappy and generally have a negative outlook on life.

* Pay attention to your diet.

As far as every-day good health is concerned, women need the same good nutrition that men need – they need to eat a balanced diet with whole grins, lots of fruit and vegetables, good balanced protein, little sugar and saturated fats, and adequate amounts of the essential oils.

So as to make sure that any nutritional gaps, created by hectic lifestyles, are plugged, a good multivitamin-multimineral supplement is strongly recommended.

It is simply not worth risking any shortages when the problem can be remedied so easily. In addition, a nourishing protein drink every day and a carotenoid complex supplement to keep the immune system at peak condition would be a good idea. Our Health Foundations page gives more details about the basics.

And then there are health issues that pertain particularly to women that need their attention.

Menstruation

As you well know, menstruation is a normal process that takes place in females from puberty until the child-bearing years are over.

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a common affliction for many women of all ages – and a problem for those nearest and dearest to them! PMS occurs several days prior to the onset of menstruation and ends a short time thereafter.

Common symptoms include irritability, emotional tension, anxiety, mood swings, depression, headaches, breast tenderness, water retention and even food cravings (for the baddies such as chocolate!).

These symptoms result from hormone induced changes in brain chemicals such as serotonin, endorphins and dopamine.

Serotonin is responsible for calmness, mood stability, reduced stress, sleepiness, appetite and pain control. Endorphins cause mood stability, euphoria, reduced stress, and decreased pain. And dopamine affects energy, concentration, alertness, and blood pressure.

No wonder PMS is the consequence when these chemicals are meddled with!

The brain chemicals are regulated by the hormones oestrogen and progesterone which are, in turn, affected by the menstrual cycle.

During the first 14 days of the cycle (called the follicular phase during which the endometrial tissue thickens to prepare the uterus for possible pregnancy) oestrogen levels are high and progesterone levels low.

High oestrogen levels result in elevated serotonin levels, so during this time women feel composed and relaxed. As the 14th day of the cycle approaches ovulation occurs, endorphins reach a peak, and women feel good.

Then, if fertilisation has not taken place, the luteal phase follows in the next 14 days. At this time high progesterone levels (and low oestrogen levels) cause the thickened endometrial tissue to break down and pass, along with the unfertilized egg, out of the cervix, through the vagina, and out of the body as the menstrual discharge. As this takes place serotonin, endorphins and dopamine levels drop, and for many women mood and appetite control is compromised. This is when PMS occurs.

There are several things that you can do to reduce the effects of PMS.

Exercise

Exercise is a natural way to increase the production of serotonin and endorphins. Aerobic activities lasting for 45 minutes, 3 to 4 times per week will maintain your energy levels and keep your endorphins (and therefore your mood!) elevated.

Diet

Pay attention to your diet! And continue doing this even if you do not see immediate benefits. It can take a little time, even up to three months, before your body settles down to improved behaviour. Patrick Holford reports that nutritional intervention alone can more than halve the PMS symptoms experienced by most women.

* Eat low glycemic index foods. Eat small servings more frequently, rather than three big meals a day. This reduces the risk of low blood sugar problems and fatigue. This is important since hormonal changes can often disturb blood sugar control mechanisms, leading to fatigue and irritability.

* Make sure you get enough fibre. Fibre helps to control sugar fluctuations and also hormonal fluctuations

* Avoid refined and processed foods, sugar and too much salt

* A multivitamin containing chromium and magnesium helps to manage blood sugar levels, reduces sugar cravings and also reduces menstrual cramps. Magnesium also controls breast tenderness and swelling.

* Omega-3 fatty acids help to prevent depression, inflammation and cramping

* Sufficient Vitamin E (up to 400 IU per day) is good for sore breasts and for regulating hormonal levels. This vitamin is also good for irritability and depression.

* Calcium intake should be kept up to calm the nerves and reduce cramping. It works well together with magnesium

* The B vitamins all play a role in managing moodiness and nervousness. They also aid with bloating problems.

* Zinc, because it is necessary to convert Vitamin B6 to its active form.

* Iron is necessary for women who have heavy bleeding during menstruation as anaemia can be a problem.

Breast health

There are probably very few women, in the Western world at least, who are not concerned about breast cancer, and most of them probably know friends or relatives who have indeed had to deal with such a diagnosis.

While the disease usually strikes later in life, protection against this problem starts much earlier. – and only a minority of cases can be linked to heredity or genes.

Perhaps an understanding of the factors that have been linked to breast cancer can clarify the protective measures that can be put in place:

* Being overweight, and consuming a lot of saturated fats.

* Drinking too much alcohol – which is more than 1 drink a day for women!

* Consuming high quantities of dairy products.

* Eating too many refined foods.

* Stress. Emotional crises, such as bereavement, divorce or job loss, often precede a breast cancer diagnosis.

* Exposure to pollutants such as pesticides and radiation.

* Being on contraceptive drugs from a young age and for prolonged periods (more than four years)

* Not breast-feeding babies!

On the other hand, in communities where breast cancer is rare, like the Japanese, the following are seen as positive factors:

* Dietary intake of unsaturated fats is high, and oily fish are a rich source of Omega-3 oils.

* Almost no dairy products are consumed.

* Fermented soya products are staples in their diet.

Can you now see any lifestyle changes that you can implement to reduce your chances of getting breast cancer?

Breast tenderness and lumps need not be cancerous. These conditions, for example fibrocystic breast disease, can certainly be alleviated by paying attention to your lifestyle and nutrition. They are known to respond well to the following:

* An increased intake of essential fatty acids and also Vitamin E (400 – 800 IU per day).

* Avoiding coffee, tea, cola–type drinks and chocolate because they contain methylxanthines which cause breast tenderness.

* Increasing your Vitamin B intake. This helps the liver to get rid of excess oestrogen.

* Maintaining a strong immune system – by eating fruits and vegetables and balanced protein.

* Making sure that your bowels are regular. This means dealing with constipation (by adding more fibre to your diet), making sure that your Vitamin C intake is high enough, and making sure that your gut flora is healthy (by using a good probiotic).

You also need to become ‘breast aware’. Learn to know the shape and feel of your breasts so that you can monitor them on a regular basis. In this way you can know when anything begins to change and have yourself checked by your health care practitioner.

Contraception

Many people now use the pill for contraception almost as a way of life – it is easy and effective. However, it carries with it many health issues which you need to consider - and you should possibly consider other methods such as barrier methods and even fertility awareness, which, when practiced diligently, can be 95 to 98 percent effective.

Some of the problems associated with the pill are as follows:

* The pill depends on synthetic hormones which trick the body into thinking it is already pregnant. Two pituitary hormones are thus prevented from stimulating monthly ovulation. Do you want to manipulate your hormones in this way? Dr Christiane Northrup, a doctor whose special interest is women’s health (she wrote Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom) is concerned that dependence on synthetic chemicals causes women to lose control of their own bodies and therefore themselves.

* Among the major side effects are heart disease and stroke. As time proceeds the risk increases such that women in the 34 to 44 year age group are four times as likely to die from circulatory problems as women not taking the pill. The dangers increase for women who are overweight or who smoke.

* Other serious side effects include an increased incidence of urinary tract infections, bronchitis, colds etc, gall bladder and liver disease (including some cancers), cervical cancer, breast cancer and depression.

* Minor side effects include a decreased sex drive, weight gain, fluid retention, breast tenderness, increased vaginal discharge, headaches, nausea and vomiting!

* Finally, there are serious nutritional consequences: the pill affects the uptake and utilisation of essential vitamins and minerals. For example:

o A common consequence is a B6 deficiency (which may explain the depression).

o Deficiencies in other B vitamins can lead to anaemia and an increased incidence of cervical dysplasia.

o Vitamin C deficiency – contributing to circulatory disease.

o Vitamin E deficiency – reduced protection against heart and therefore increased incidence of circulatory diseases.

o Zinc deficiency – essential for a healthy immune system, healthy skin, a healthy reproductive system, effective wound healing and efficient digestion.

When all is said and done, if you still decide to use this route be sure to do what is necessary to protect yourself against the consequences to the best of your ability. You can probably guess what the advice would be, but to summarise again:

* Eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet.

* Avoid smoking (and do not place yourself in smoky environments).

* Exercise regularly.

* Take nutritional supplements, paying special attention to extra amounts of Vitamins B, C, E and zinc.

Pregnancy

This is such a special stage in women’s lives that it has a whole page devoted to it.

Menopause and its symptoms

Menopause is the name given to the period in a woman’s life when she has stopped menstruating, and therefore has passed childbearing age.

Natural menopause typically occurs between the ages of 48 and 52, but for some women it may occur at an earlier or later age.

It is important to remember that menopause is a normal biological process that all women experience, and it should not be treated as a disease!

For some women menopause passes virtually unnoticed while for many others uncomfortable symptoms make this life passage almost unbearable.

These symptoms include hot flushes, heart palpitations and sweats, headaches, mood swings, insomnia, poor memory, vaginal dryness, increased urinary tract infections and stress incontinence.

In addition to these unpleasant symptoms, the risk of more dangerous problems such as osteoporosis and heart disease increase due to the changes in hormone levels.

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has been touted as the answer to the problem for over 20 years. It can alleviate many of the symptoms of menopause by artificially restoring the depleted hormone levels.

There are, however some serious questions related to this intervention, including a possible increased risk of breast cancer.

So what are the alternatives should you not wish to go the HRT route?

* Regular exercise can improve some of the symptoms, including hot flashes.

* Stabilise your blood sugar – eat fewer refined foods, avoid sugar and increase your intake of complex carbohydrates and fruits and vegetables.

* Reduce your intake (or eliminate it completely!) of foods containing stimulants e.g. caffeine in coffee and tea, alcohol and maybe even chocolate.

* Reduce intake of saturated fats and increase intake of essential fatty acids. Supplementation is almost always necessary to get adequate amounts of these.

* Make sure that you are getting enough fibre in your diet. This can be done by eating more while grains and fruits and vegetables, and by means of fibre rich supplements.

* Calcium is also thought to reduce the occurrence of hot flashes. This should be taken together with magnesium. Together they also act as natural tranquilizers!

* Vitamin E (400-800 IU per day) can also alleviate many of the symptoms of menopause. It reduces hot flushes. It also helps reduce the risks of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and macular degeneration, all of which are associated with increasing age and are therefore more common in menopausal women.

* Vitamin C in high doses can be helpful (1000 mg two or three times a day) in alleviating much of the discomfort many menopausal women experience. The bowel tolerance test is easy to do for yourself: up your intake of Vitamin C until you experience very mild diarrhoea, then at that point reduce your intake by one tablet.

* Many women benefit from extra Vitamin B.

And the side effects of all these methods? Better health all round!

The loss of oestrogen at menopause has many serious health implications for women. For example, the incidence of heart disease rises markedly from about 9 000 heart attacks per year for women in the USA under the age of 45, to 250,000 heart attacks per year for women over the age of 65!

Fortunately, many of the attendant risk factors can be minimized through appropriate lifestyle choices.

It's up to you!

As we noted at the start, women have special responsibilities as they play their important roles. They also face particular challenges to their health and well-being. Sensible lifestyle choices coupled with the right nutrition will help ensure that they enjoy lifelong good health.