A woman’s work is never done. At no time in history has that expression held more truth than today. Between juggling college and career, child-rearing and homemaking and hobbies, the 21st century female is almost constantly in motion. One result is that women are now experiencing more of the same types of lifestyle or stress-induced women’s health issues that formerly found a greater incidence in men.
Here are some helpful guidelines for managing health concerns through proper nutrition. We will also examine nutrition’s role in areas of special interest to women, including estrogen production, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), fertility, menopause and osteoporosis.
Mind Your “B’s” and “M’s” – Regardless of gender, age or lifestyle, everyone needs B-complex vitamins and minerals. Male bodies and female bodies use them in the same ways most of the time, but the required amounts differ because of physiological variations. A pregnant woman needs more of the B vitamins and most minerals, for example. Most of the once-daily type supplements in today’s marketplace do not fully take into account the physiologically unique circumstances in a woman’s life, such as pregnancy and menstruation. This is particularly true when it comes to minerals, an essential component of nutrition. The typical, once-daily supplement can be very low in mineral content, which could lull consumers into a false sense of “mineral security” because we all have different individual needs. Those who take only a once-daily supplement may not be getting all they need for good health in one tablet.
Teens’ Special Needs – Teen girls have as great a need for nutritional support as do their older sisters and mothers – if not greater! – especially those substances involved in the growth of bones and the reproductive system. Growth increases the need for structural materials such as protein and minerals, calories (since energy is needed to build body tissue) and nutrients to help regulate body processes. The stresses that young women face because of school and social pressures take an additional toll on vitamin status. Today’s teens overall seem more involved than their predecessors with extracurricular activities such as sports, social clubs and volunteer groups. This level of activity, coupled with an often less-than-wholesome diet (sometimes despite our best efforts as parents!), means our teenagers may require greater nutritional support than a once-daily type of supplement.
Different Stages Of Life – Different Nutritional Needs – There are occasions in a woman’s life when additional support is necessary. In these instances some women, because of their stress levels and particular life style, will require additional amounts of specific nutrients.
PMS – Premenstrual syndrome can be an uncomfortable experience for some women, regardless of age. When a woman becomes stressed, her body uses up nutrients in an effort to maintain nutritional balance. One key nutrient, calcium, has a major effect on that balance. When calcium is compromised it upsets the relationship between potassium and sodium. The result can be water retention — bloating. The electrical messaging that is necessary for proper nerve-muscle function can also be thrown off. Cramping can occur as a result. Stress also affects the adrenal glands. This is of particular consequence to peri-, pre- and menopausal women because the adrenals manufacture estrogen and progesterone, and any disruption to estrogen and progesterone production can affect many different aspects of female health. Another role of the adrenals is to ensure adequate fuel for the cells, which they accomplish by communicating with the liver to release glycogen into the blood stream. Low blood-sugar levels can result in moodiness.
Fertility – Good nutrition is absolutely essential to achieving a pregnancy or sustaining one through to a healthy birth.
Experience has shown that even people who believe they are eating well may not be getting the nutrients they need. Some of the fault lies in food choices, but the generally over-processed American diet is also to blame. When the impact of stress is added to an already deficient diet, the body could be thrown sufficiently out of balance to prevent conception or to have an impact on pregnancy.
Estrogen Production – The female hormone estrogen is produced primarily in the ovaries. However, the adrenal glands also produce estrogen and progesterone, and healthy adrenals may account for the ability of some women to experience fewer symptoms associated with the menopausal transition.
Menopause – This is a natural phenomenon, occurring in most women around 50 years of age. The ovaries become less responsive to the stimulation of gonadotropic hormones. This results in a declining production of estrogen and progesterone, which interrupts the normal development of the ovaries’ follicles. Follicles are the structures that surround primary oocytes or eggs.
Throughout a woman’s reproductive life, when stimulated hormonally these follicles release their eggs, or “ovulate.” The follicles decrease in number with age and the ovaries’ ability to produce estrogen also decreases. By age 45, only a few follicles remain. Estrogen production decreases until the follicles become atrophic and the ovaries cease estrogen production.
There are also changes in both gonadotropin-releasing hormone patterns and the quality or quantity of luteinizing hormones, which stimulate the production of estrogen and progesterone and aid in ovulation.
During the course of menopause, women may suffer an array of physical concerns including hot flashes, headaches, hair loss, muscular pains, vaginal dryness, weight gain and mood swings. Interestingly, not all women experience the same levels of physical and psychological reactions as their bodies go through this transition — some women experience virtually no effects at all. Nutrition can make the all-important difference; when the body has all of the required nutrients in adequate amounts, it is able to maintain balance and harmony.
Due to the diminished levels of estrogen, there is also a possibility of osteoporosis, a condition in which bones become thin, fragile and highly prone to fracture. Estrogen helps bones absorb the calcium they need to stay strong. Beginning at around age 30, bone loss accelerates greatly and continues until as much as 30 percent of the calcium in bones is lost by age 70.