Tending to health in four crucial areas—breast protection, uterine concerns,
skeletal support and menopausal complaints—can help you feel your best.
By Claire Sykes
You live your whole life in your body—of course you want to take care of it. Everyone needs a lifestyle that includes smart eating, ample exercise, stress reduction and sound sleep. However, as a woman you also need to address female health concerns by paying extra attention to your breasts, uterus and bones, along with dealing with the changes you undergo during menopause.
What you do now impacts your well-being, not only today but into the future, since health risks only increase with age. One thing’s for sure: It’s never too early—or late—to take action.
Breast Cancer: A New Perspective
Breast cancer ranks near the top of most women’s health concerns, and with good reason. Among American women it is the most common type of malignancy and the second-leading cause of cancer death, reports the American Cancer Society.
“What’s really interesting is that in the past 20 years, we’ve changed our whole way of thinking about breast cancer,” says Susan Love, MD, president of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, clinical professor of surgery at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book (Da Capo Press). “Before, we thought you somehow got bad cells, which grew slowly, and if you caught the cancer early enough your life would be saved. It turns out we’re all walking around with cancer cells. But to mutate, they need to be in an environment of other cells that are egging them on, such as a virus, an inherited mutation or carcinogens.”
Researchers have also learned that breast cancer is not just one disease. The National Breast Cancer Foundation (www.nationalbreastcancer.org) lists seven types on its website, and they spread at different rates. “There are now tests that can be done to figure out which kind you have, and what is the best treatment for you,” says Love.
“Lifestyle changes can make a huge difference. Studies show that overweight women are more likely to get breast cancer or have a recurrence of it, especially if they’re post-menopausal,” Love continues. Fat produces estrogen, which promotes growth of some breast tumors. But fat itself also “sets up conditions that are more conducive to cancer’s growth,” says Love.
Love’s most important anti-cancer recommendation? “Exercise enough to break a sweat at least three hours a week, and reduce your stress. All of this helps keep mutated cells in check,” she advises.
Adding turmeric to your diet may also help. Curcumin, this spice’s main ingredient, has inhibited the ability of breast cancer cells to invade healthy tissues in lab studies (Archives of Pharmacal Research 7/10).
Uterine Health: Avoiding Hysterectomy
For many women, the uterus is simply an organ that generates menstrual cycles and houses a growing baby. However, research shows that it does far more than that.
A study published in the European Heart Journal (12/24/10) reports that women 50 and younger who have had a hysterectomy (ovaries removed or not) face a greater threat of cardiovascular disease later in life. “The uterus is really important in protecting heart health,” says Eve Agee, PhD, medical anthropologist and author of The Uterine Health Companion: A Holistic Guide to Lifelong Wellness (Celestial Arts).
In fact, the uterus plays a crucial role in overall well-being. It produces hormones that regulate blood pressure and help prevent abnormal blood clots, reduce pain during pregnancy and childbirth, heighten sexual pleasure and balance emotions. Because of the large ligaments that tie it in place, the uterus supports posture. And the cervix, that neck-like portion that connects to the vagina, protects the body against bacterial infections.
Thanks to the widespread use of Pap smears, cervical cancer rates have plummeted since the mid-40s. Then HPV stormed in. Transmitted sexually, HPV (human papillomavirus) “causes virtually all cervical cancers,” says Debbie Saslow, PhD, director of breast and gynecologic cancer with the American Cancer Society. Good thing there’s a new screening, the HPV test (done with the Pap) that Saslow says has demonstrated a high accuracy rate for women over age 30 who are tested every three years.
If you do get cervical cancer, you might end up joining the one-third of women in the US who will have a hysterectomy by age 60, says Agee. But only 10% are for cancers. Agee notes that the uterus is removed more often than it needs to be for conditions that warrant less aggressive treatment options. “There’s a social stigma in our culture that the uterus is disposable after pregnancy.”
Agee bases her uterine health plan on a combination of proper diet, movement and stress reduction. Her mental approach includes deep breathing, guided imagery to induce deep relaxation and what she calls “cognitive restructuring tools” such as journaling about uterine ailments. Proper movement includes good posture—“slouching causes your pelvis to tip backward, pulling your uterus out of alignment,” warns Agee—cardio and resistance training, regular stretching and such practices as yoga and tai chi.
Eating for uterine health means avoiding conventionally raised meat, which “creates inflammation and contributes to uterine problems,” says Agee. Instead, she recommends cold-water fish for its anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, along with uterine-friendly black currant, borage and evening primrose oils. Eating a plant-based diet helps prevent excessive estrogen production. In addition, “zinc, B vitamins, magnesium, fish oil, vitamin E, vitamin D and calcium are necessary for healthy hormonal function,” Agee says.
Skeletal Health: Calcium and More
Bone density may decrease in response to changes in the way your body uses calcium. What’s more, you can develop vertebral fractures regardless of bone density—and you may never know it. “In only 25% of cases do people show symptoms. These include mild to severe back and stomach aches, trouble breathing or eating, and height loss or posture change,” says Felicia Cosman, MD, osteoporosis specialist and medical director of the Clinical Research Center at Helen Hayes Hospital in West Haverstraw, New York.
That’s why research suggests undergoing a vertebral fracture assessment (VFA) to spot spinal fractures, which show up as compressed or deformed spine bones. Cosman says the National Osteoporosis Foundation (www.nof.org) will provide VFA guidelines in the coming year. This is in addition to a bone density test, recommended by the US Preventative Services Task Force for all women age 65 or older and for postmenopausal women under age 65 who have osteoporosis risk factors such as family history or a thin frame.
Bones are built from calcium and protein. “When your calcium intake is low, your body draws on calcium stored in the bones,” explains Shira Weiner, PhD, physical therapist at New York University Medical Center in New York City. Bones also need vitamin D. The best way to protect your bones is to eat calcium-rich foods, such as dairy and collard greens, and vitamin D from sun exposure and supplementation.
An Institute of Medicine report recommends 1,000 mg of calcium daily for women between the ages of 19 and 50, 1,200 mg after 50. For vitamin D, the IOM recommends 600 IU per day until age 70 and 800 IU afterwards. But the group increased its recommended maximum intake to 4,000 IU a day, and a number of studies support daily intakes of 5,000 IU. (Blood tests can measure calcium and vitamin D levels.) In addition, vitamin K, particularly a variant known as vitamin K2, is required for the creation of proteins that help incorporate calcium and other minerals into bone.
Menopause: The Big Change
Irregular periods and hot flashes, insomnia and depression, sexual disinterest and fuzzy thinking: These symptoms can signal the beginning of menopause, when a woman’s hormone levels fluctuate as her reproductive capacity diminishes in her mid-40s into her early 50s.
Research indicates that menopausal symptoms may serve as markers for other health conditions. According to a study in the journal Menopause (2/7/10), women who suffer from hot flashes and night sweats may be at risk for cardiovascular disease. The study authors say these women also tend
to have high cholesterol levels, blood pressure and body mass index—all heart-health danger signs.
But hot flashes aren’t all bad. An investigation reported in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention (12/15/10) concluded that “women who ever experienced menopausal symptoms have a substantially reduced risk of breast cancer.”
Recent data points to a prevalence of sexual disinterest, also known as hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD), among menopausal women. “But don’t believe the myth that as we age we don’t want sex,” says Sheryl Kingsberg, PhD, behavioral medicine chief at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. “It’s the age of the sexual relationship that usually determines the quality of the sex.”
A woman may also become less interested in sex because of painful intercourse due to lower estrogen levels which can cause thinning and drying of vaginal tissues. To ease such discomfort, Kingsberg recommends non-hormonal lubricants and moisturizers. In addition, herbalists employ damiana and muira puama to promote increased desire, while L-arginine encourages better blood flow.
For other menopausal symptoms, damiana may help reduce hot flashes. Dong quai, an herb used to help regulate the female reproductive system, is also used by many women for hot flashes, as is vitamin E. Regular exercise, deep breathing and acupuncture also help bring relief.
The challenges of menopause can provide the opportunity to pay more attention to yourself and your own well-being. “You’ve got a lot of years left,” says Margery Gass, MD, executive director of the North American Menopause Society. “Use them to reassess how you’d like your health to be during this time.”
Defining Your Feminine Spirit
Sensitive wife, nurturing mother, hardworking employee: It’s easy—too easy, in fact—for women to define themselves in terms of how others see them. But maintaining a sense of who you are as an individual is crucial for your long-term well-being.
“Your creative essence is a powerful current that flows through you,” says Tami Lynn Kent, holistic women’s healthcare provider and author of Wild Feminine: Finding Power, Spirit & Joy in the Female Body (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, www.simonandschuster.com). “Rather than realizing the full capacity of our creative core, we accept the limitations that we have inherited or formed in reaction to wounds or certain roles, and as a result, we diminish our natural abilities to receive true healing, new resources, vital energy or unclaimed ground.”
One way to “redefine your feminine identity,” as Kent puts it, is to first decide what the word “feminine” means to you. To do so, Kent suggests making two lists, one of everything you associate with being a woman and everything you associate with being feminine. She then suggests reflecting on these lists in the light of the following questions: How are they similar and dissimilar? What does this imply about your view of womanhood and the feminine? Is there anything you want to change and, if so, what do you need to support such change and bring this feminine aspect into your life?
You can’t bring your feminine spirit to the forefront if you don’t know what it looks like. Kent says defining this basic term allows women “to discover what each of us needs to create and embody our own expression of femininity.”