Most of the time, when it comes to health conditions, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman; you have an equal chance of having to live with things such as failing eyesight or digestive issues. However, when it comes to osteoporosis, depression, certain autoimmune diseases and diabetes, women have to be a little more vigilant than men. Why women have to deal with certain conditions more often than men usually is down to the simple fact that women’s bodies are different than men’s and have unique requirements throughout their life span. Other factors include genetics, personality traits, environmental factors, and/or personal history. Whatever the reason, being aware of the risk factors before these conditions creep into your life is your first, and most important, step. Knowing is the first step to healing.
Up until very recently, a woman, as she advanced in years, expected and accepted the development frail bones, a curvature in the upper spine, and ever-present back pain. Today’s physician now knows that there are measures a woman can take to avoid living with these difficulties in her later years.
Osteoporosis threatens 44 million Americans, of which 68% are women, reports the National Osteoporosis Foundation.1 Luckily, there are behaviours which women can and should adopt, beginning in childhood, that will help them avoid the onset of osteoporosis. Why childhood? Because childhood is when a woman’s body is actively building it’s bone mass up until about the age of 30. After that, a woman’s body builds no more mass and has to make do the best it can from then on with the mass it has acquired. Another reason a woman should be focused on bone mass up until the age of 30 is because, for the rest of her life, her hormones will play a part in bone loss as her estrogen levels rise and fall until menopause. After menopause is the time when most women experience bone loss (due to lower levels of estrogen) and osteoporosis. So what’s a gal to do?
Barring any absorption issues, a diet rich in calcium obviously helps the bones and will include foods such as low-fat dairy products (milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese), salmon (with bones), dark green leafy vegetables, almonds, asparagus, and figs. Because calcium works in concert with magnesium, you should also include foods such as apples, bananas, brown rice, nuts, peaches and whole grains. For a more in-depth listing of calcium and magnesium rich foods, CLICK HERE. Limit your caffeine intake to three cups per day and don’t overdo your protein intake; stick with the RDA of 1,000 mg for women. To see what 1,000 mg looks like in actual foods, CLICK HERE. After menopause, a woman’s RDA rises to 1,500 to 2,000 mg per day.
One of the best options to ensure your body is getting its elemental calcium requirements is a high-quality calcium supplement. Because your body can only absorb a limited amount of calcium at a time, it’s best to stagger your supplements throughout the day. Most quality calcium supplements are coupled with magnesium and vitamin D. This is because each needs the other to work properly in your body. Unless your primary health care provider specifies that you take calcium only, look for a supplement that includes all three.
Exercise plays an important part in healthy bones. It also helps you maintain better balance, posture, and flexibility, decreasing your risk of falls. Find a program you like and think you will stick with and be sure it includes weight-bearing exercises. This doesn’t mean you have to lift weights until you look like Miss Olympia. It simply means working with a personal trainer at the beginning to ensure you’re lifting the weights properly and that you’re not lifting too much for your current physical condition. Exercise for at least 30 minutes, three times per week. If the gym doesn’t appeal to you, you could try walking, eventually working up to walking with small weights on your ankles and wrists for more resistance.
Lifestyle considerations include quitting smoking, avoiding excess alcohol, and having a good belly laugh at least once a day. But seriously, stress and depression cause your body to produce cortisol, a stress-related hormone that sucks the minerals right out of your bones. One study showed that women with clinical depression had lower bone densities in their hips and spines.2 To read the full articles on osteoporosis, CLICK HERE and CLICK HERE.
Whether it’s because women are more likely to seek help for depression, or whether it’s due to physiological and psychological factors, statistics from The National Institute of Mental Health show that depression affects 12 million women each year compared to 6 million men. Researchers suspect that, rather than a single cause, many factors unique to women’s lives play a role in developing depression. These factors include genetic and biological, reproductive, hormonal, abuse and oppression, interpersonal and certain psychological and personality characteristics [outlook, attitude, perception, memories].3
Dorree Lynn, PhD, psychologist and author of Getting Sane Without Going Crazy, says that women need a connection with others in their lives. “They need that sustenance,” says Lynn. “If they don’t have it, they tend to get depressed.”
Over and above a lack of social support, hormonal ups and downs can also generate a depressive state, particularly after the birth of a child or around menopause. A woman’s increased vulnerability to depression may also include the stress of having to juggle a career and family responsibilities. Brain chemistry may come into play if certain neurotransmitters are out of balance. Gender differences in the activity of neurotransmitters including serotonin and the effects of estrogen on these neurotransmitters may also be linked to the gender disparity in rates of depression.4 To read more about neurotransmitters, CLICK HERE.
Signs and symptoms of depression include little interest or pleasure in doing things that normally gave your pleasure, feelings of hopelessness or failure, insomnia, sleeping too much, fatigue, lethargy, appetite issues (too little, too much), inability to concentrate, and/or fidgety behaviour (jumping from one thing to the next). In addition to these symptoms, when a woman seeks helps for depression, she will often also report feelings of anxiety, physical symptoms (aches and pains), an increase or loss of weight, and sudden mood swings or outbursts.
If you feel that depression may have settled into your life, your first step is to have a conversation with your primary health care provider regarding your symptoms and how you feel. Follow his/her instructions to the letter in order to overcome your depression. Simple lifestyle changes can also help you feel better; get regular exercise, taking some of your exercise out of doors in the natural sunlight. Make sure your diet includes choices from every food group and color, paying particular attention to essential fatty acids such as Omega 3. Try to stick with a regular schedule, even on weekends, of going to bed at the same hour and getting up at the same hour. This helps reset your circadian rhythm, allowing for a more restful sleep.
Simply put, autoimmune diseases are a varied group of disorders in which the immune system fails to recognize “self”, can attack almost every human organ system in the body, and destroys tissue or disrupts other normally functioning systems which it was originally designed to protect. Some examples of autoimmune diseases include lupus, MS, rheumatoid arthritis, and type 1 diabetes. According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA), about 75% of autoimmune diseases occur in women. In fact, 9 out of 10 people who have lupus are women. To date, the scientific community cannot say with surety what causes the body to turn on itself but it is thought that genetics, hormones, and environmental factors are strong contenders for triggers.
It may be a long, involved process to arrive at a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease because these conditions cross so many medical lines from rheumatology to endocrinology to hematology and on and on. It’s important that you become your own best advocate during this process and continue to communicate the fact that something is wrong. If the wrong diagnosis or no diagnosis is made, organ damage may occur that you could have to live with for the rest of your life. Stay in touch with your primary health care provider and continue to advise of changes in your condition that can help them arrive at the correct diagnosis.
According to a 2007 study in Annals of Internal Medicine, the differences in physiology between men and women are almost certainly involved in the vast difference between how diabetes affects a man and how it affects a woman. A woman’s ability to have a child is but one of the reasons diabetes can be difficult for women. Not only can diabetes affect the mother, but it can also affect the unborn child.
Women who are not diabetic and become pregnant have to consider the complications of developing gestational diabetes, a condition of high blood sugar that develops during pregnancy. Gestational diabetes can usually be controlled through diet and exercise however, left to its own devices, too much sugar in the mother’s blood can mean too much sugar in the baby’s blood. The baby’s pancreas has to work harder to produce insulin to deal with the overload of sugar and the baby can put on too much weight, complicating things when it comes time to deliver.
Based on recently announced diagnostic criteria for gestational diabetes, it is estimated that gestational diabetes develops in 18 percent of all pregnancies but disappears when a pregnancy is over. In addition to the problems it may cause during pregnancy and delivery, women who have had gestational diabetes or have given birth to a baby weighing more than 9 pounds are at an increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes later in life. 4 If you have diabetes and are planning on getting pregnant, you should have a conversation with your primary health care provider to ensure you’re doing everything you can to keep yourself and your baby in very best health before, during, and after the pregnancy.
The American Diabetes Association Healthy Living Magazine Diabetes Forecast reports that women, who would normally outlive their male counterparts, have higher rates of heart disease when coupled with diabetes. “The risk for heart disease is six times higher for women with diabetes than those without,” says Marianne Legato, MD, FACP, director of the Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University. Dr. Legato put the double whammy together this way; HDL (the good cholesterol) which is normally higher in women is driven down by high triglycerides (blood fats) that can occur with diabetes. This combination of higher triglycerides and lower HDL adds up to a greater risk of heart disease.
Another reason for the difference between men and women may be the way a woman experiences the heart attack itself. While chest pain might be one symptom of a heart attack for a woman, women are more likely to experience only nausea, shortness of breath, and back or jaw pain during a heart attack. If no medical attention is sought, it could lower her chances of recovery.
The complication of kidney disease is also worse for women with diabetes. “Kidney disease generally doesn’t affect women until they get to menopause,” a time when estrogen levels fall and women, at least hormonally speaking, become more like men, says Christine Maric-Bilken, PhD, associate professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “Yet, women with diabetes are just as likely to get kidney disease as men regardless of age.” Maric-Bilken is studying whether the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone are the key to why women with diabetes are more vulnerable to kidney disease than men with diabetes. “Women with diabetes have less estrogen,” she says. “In diabetes, once you lose that estrogen, the testosterone creeps up [and] takes up the slack of estrogen.” Other studies have found that lower estrogen levels are indeed associated with kidney disease.
And then there’s depression. Depression is about twice as common in women with diabetes as it is in men. A landmark 2010 study of women in Archives of Internal Medicine suggested that depression increases the risk of diabetes and vice versa, and a 2006 study in the journal Public Health found that diabetes and depression are associated in women, but not in men. When things aren’t feeling right, you should always consult with your primary health care provider to talk about options and solutions. You never have to go through this alone. To read Nutter’s full article on depression, CLICK HERE.
Canadian Diabetes Association
Canadian Mental Health Association
The Arthritis Society
Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada
1. Women’s Top 5 Health Concerns
2. 15 Tips for Preventing Osteoporosis
3. and 4. Women and Depression, Fact Sheet – National Alliance on Mental Illness