Women’s Health

OK, so compared to men, women tend to know a lot more about their health. Are we taking our health at every stage of our life for granted? Lisa Burn investigates…

Periods and pain

It’s estimated that 50 per cent of women suffer periods that are so painful they impact on the rest of their lives. This pain is down to hormonal imbalance and contractions of the uterus and is generally not serious, though it can feel worse if you’re feeling stressed.

However, you don’t have to suffer in silence as there are a number of self-help measures you can take to improve the situation.

Try exercising more, especially the week before and during your period. This increases your circulation, reduces stress and releases your body’s natural painkillers. Exercise also makes you feel good about yourself so is useful if you’re feeling low, anxious or suffering from mood swings due to premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Keeping your blood sugar levels in sync will also benefit your mood so eat plenty of complex carbs, seeds, nuts and fresh vegetables as well as protein from, for example, tofu or fish.

On the herbal front raspberry leaf tea brings relief to some people while agnus castus helps balance hormones and cramp bark, as its name suggests, eases painful cramp. To help ease bloating due to water retention, consider dandelion or parsley, both diuretics, in a tea or tincture and drink plenty of water.

Vitamin B6 and evening primrose or borage oil help balance hormones and reduce breast pain. Vitamin E, zinc and magnesium may also help here.

Fertility and pregnancy

While many pregnancies are unplanned, if you’re intending to have a baby it makes sense to look at your health and lifestyle before conception. Smoking and alcohol are bad for baby and may adversely affect your fertility, making it harder for you to get pregnant in the first place. Drinking too much coffee can also affect fertility as can weight – being underweight or overweight.

Dietary changes can also contribute to a healthy pregnancy and baby. Cut back on junk food of little nutritional value and instead increase your intake of fruit and vegetables for their vitamins and minerals – such as oranges and dark green vegetables for their folic acid content. Folic acid has been proven to prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, in babies. Make sure you’re eating food containing essential fatty acids (EFAs) such as oily fish, nuts and seeds, as these are crucial for all parts of the body, including the reproductive system, as well as being vital to the foetus during pregnancy (omega 3 for example is needed for brain development). Eat wholegrains, opt for brown instead of white rice and wholemeal instead of regular pasta – this will help keep your blood sugar even.

Consider a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement before and during pregnancy to optimise your chances of conceiving and ensuring nutrient levels after. For instance your fertility could be affected if you lack zinc, while supplementing with vitamins C and E could improve fertility in women in their 30s. A number of supplements specially formulated for pregnant women are available.

Obesity and overweight

Being overweight can affect your health, your lifestyle, your confidence and your mood.

According to the British Nutrition Foundation 20% of women in Great Britain are obese, compared to just 8% in the early 1980s, while 32% are overweight. In England, an estimated 30,000 deaths each year are obesity related.
While it takes a real effort to achieve a healthy weight and stay there the effort has to be worth the end result – losing weight cuts your risk of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, osteoarthritis, high blood pressure and gallstones.

Look to lose no more than 2lb a week. More than this and you’re likely to lose muscle; break your weight loss down into small goals so you don’t become disheartened and look to the long term.

While calorie cutting is still the most common method used by slimmers to lose weight it’s not the only thing to bear in mind. Balanced blood sugar helps your body burn food as energy; if sugar levels are too high, out comes the insulin and the food is converted to fat. To maintain even blood sugar levels eat little but often, eat foods with a low glycaemic index (GI) such as brown rice and brown pasta, foregoing fast-releasing foods such as cakes, biscuits, white bread, pastries and of course sugar.

Fat gets a bad press generally among dieters, with some justification in the case of saturated fat. However, low fat diets that cut out all fat are not a good idea. Your body needs certain fats – the EFAs found in nuts, seeds and oily fish for example – to function properly and keep metabolism up, so even when trying to lose weight continue to include them in your diet.

Regular exercise is another way to boost your metabolism and keep it high for hours after each session. Choose an exercise class or sport you enjoy – that way you’ll stick with it and it won’t feel like hard work.

Supplements shown to help with weight loss include B vitamins for energy, digestion and thyroid function; conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) to help burn fat as fuel; chromium to help regulate blood sugar and reduce cravings; zinc for thyroid health and co-enzyme Q10 for energy.

Menopause (including osteoporosis)

Women experience the menopause between the ages of 47 and 52, though for some this stage of life can come sooner or later. It marks the end of the childbearing years and for many is symbolised by hot flushes, night sweats, irritability and headaches, perhaps dry skin and hair loss.

Reduced oestrogen levels can lead to osteoporosis, increased risk of stroke and heart disease and is often managed conventionally with hormone replacement therapy (HRT). There is another way though – through diet and supplements. Include calcium-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables in your diet, cut down on saturated fat, eat oily fish for its vitamin D (helps calcium absorption) as well as its omega 3 (moisturising properties) and nuts for their boron and magnesium content (builds bones). Vitamin C, from citrus fruits for example, helps keep skin healthy by boosting collagen production, it’s also an antioxidant. Eat tofu or drink soya milk as soya contains phytoestrogens, which are also found in pulses and cereals.

If you’re considering supplements look for multi vitamin and mineral formulations specially designed for the menopause as well as individual products such as fish oil supplements, red clover and soya (phytoestrogens), evening primrose or borage oil (for irritability and tender breasts), St Johns Wort (depression), omega 7 (alleviates vaginal dryness), black cohosh (mood swings and depression) and sage (hot flushes).

Feminine hygiene

There’s now an alternative to mass-produced sanitary ware with a range of disposable and non-disposable products available.

Tampons and towels – made from organic, unbleached cotton they break down quicker in the environment and as they’re unbleached they don’t contribute to dioxin (a pollutant) build-up in the body.

Even more environmentally friendly are non-disposable sanitary pads that are simply washed and reused, or the menstrual cup, which fits inside the body and is also reusable.

Natural Lifestyle © Natural Lifestyle August 2005 in connection with Natural Health Week

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