Sometimes it’s great to be a woman, other times it feels like we are a victim of our biology. Women are complex and experience various health concerns that are specific to being female. Different stages in life will make certain health conditions more likely as the female body goes through biological and hormonal changes.
Common women’s conditions
Conditions that are most likely to affect you throughout the various stages of life are – pre-menstrual syndrome, menopause and pregnancy. Fluctuating hormones are a big component of these conditions and can greatly affect the symptoms experienced. As the name suggests, pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) refers to the range of physical and emotional symptoms that many women can experience prior to menstruation.1 Menopause is a natural part of life which occurs as menstruation stops and the child bearing years come to an end. During this time, the ovaries stop producing eggs and there may be numerous symptoms due to fluctuations in hormones.2 Pregnancy can be a joyous time for some and a time of difficulty for others due to the intense changes going on in the body. The enormous hormonal fluctuations that take place during pregnancy can cause a variety of symptoms. Some women experience many of the symptoms while others may have barely any.3
Cystitis is another common condition affecting women and is not hormonally related. It refers to bacteria adhering to the bladder causing pain on urination.4 Although men can have this condition, women are more susceptible due to their anatomy. Fortunately lifestyle modifications and natural medicine can play an important role in keeping women healthy throughout the stages of life. Women’s health concerns have a variety of factors that may contribute to them:
- PMS – the cause isn’t conclusively known, although the latest research suggests changes in neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) in the time before menstruation.1
- Menopause is a natural part of life and symptoms may be caused by fluctuating levels of ‘female’ hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone.2
- Pregnancy symptoms may be caused by the huge hormonal and biological changes occurring in a woman’s body.3
- Cystitis occurs when bacteria travels up the urethra (the tube where urine leaves the body) and infects the urine and inflames the lining of the bladder. It is usually caused by E. coli bacteria.iv
Preventing women’s health concerns
Symptoms of PMS, menopause, and pregnancy vary considerably for each woman and may include:
- PMS – bloating, acne, headaches, migraines, digestive upset, food cravings and mood changes such as anxiety and depression.1
- Menopause – headaches, irritability, hot flushes, night sweats, aches and pains, forgetfulness, low libido, fatigue, urinary frequency, difficulty sleeping, vaginal dryness and discomfort with sexual intercourse. A decrease in female hormones after menopause may lead to thinning of the bones (Osteoporosis).2
- Pregnancy – early stages may include missed period, fatigue, breast changes and morning sickness. Later stages can include backache, headache, varicose veins, leg cramps, constipation, hemorrhoids, mood swings or depression.3
Symptoms of cystitis include:
- Burning pain on urination, strong smelling and cloudy or bloody urine, frequent urge to urinate and sometimes pain in the lower abdomen.4
Lifestyle modifications may help to reduce the likelihood of some of the more unpleasant symptoms of PMS, menopause, pregnancy and cystitis:
- Eat healthy – choose a wide variety of healthy meals including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. Ensure you are eating enough calcium rich foods such as dairy and sesame seeds.
- Sleep well – quality sleep is important for a sense of wellbeing. Ensure your sleep environment is dark, quiet and comfortable.
- Stress less – learn techniques such as yoga, meditation and tai chi. High stress levels may increase PMS symptoms.1
- Cut back on caffeine and alcohol – especially during the two weeks prior to menstruation for PMS sufferers.1
- Don’t smoke – smoking may increase the risk of osteoporosis and is a risk factor for PMS.1,2
- Exercise – regular exercise may help increase feel good endorphins, which may assist with some of the mood related symptoms of PMS, menopause and pregnancy.1,2
- Manage weight – being overweight can increase the risk of PMS.1
- Go to the toilet often – rather than holding on, if you feel the urge to urinate and suffer from cystitis. Drink plenty of water to flush your urinary system and wipe yourself from front to back after going to the toilet.4
There are many natural medicines and lifestyle modifications that can keep women healthy throughout the various life stages, some specifically beneficial for women include:
- Fenugreek – is considered to have ‘galactogogue’ properties, which means it may support healthy milk supply while breastfeeding.
- Vitex agnus castus – may help to regulate the menstrual cycle and assist in relieving the symptoms of PMS.
- Black Cohosh – traditionally used in Western herbal medicine for the relief of symptoms of PMS, including period pain. It has ‘emmenagogue’ properties which means it helps to stimulate menstrual flow. It is also used to relieve menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes.
- Ginger – may help to relieve the nausea and vomiting of morning sickness and aid digestion.
- Evening Primrose Oil – this nutritious oil is rich in gamma-linolenic acid which must be supplied through the diet. It may assist in the management of symptoms of PMS, especially breast tenderness.
- Cranberry – is used to maintain urinary tract and kidney health. Many people use it to reduce the risk of cystitis as it discourages adherence of harmful bacteria to the urinary tract and therefore may reduce the frequency of cystitis. It contains substances that are useful in masking urinary odours associated with incontinence and cystitis.
- Vitamin B6 – may assist in providing relief from the nausea and vomiting of morning sickness. It may also help to relieve PMS symptoms such as mood swings, irritability, and fatigue.
- Folic acid – 400-500mcg per day of this B vitamin taken for one month prior to conception and during pregnancy may reduce the risk of a child with neural tube defects such as spina bifida.
- Iron –is required throughout pregnancy for normal foetal growth and development as well as health of the pregnant mother. Inadequate dietary intake may be associated with decreased general health and well-being, headaches and irritability.
- Magnesium – this mineral may assist in the management of the frequency and severity of menstrual migraines. There are additional requirements for magnesium during pregnancy, breastfeeding and growth periods. It may also assist in relieving leg cramps associated with pregnancy. Magnesium is particularly important for bone health during and after menopause.
- Probiotics – these friendly bacteria may encourage healthy bacterial balance in the urogenital area.
Frequently asked questions:
I have cystitis and it is causing a lot of pain, when should I see the doctor?
If self-help treatments aren’t working, you should seek medical advice quickly, especially if there is blood present. Your doctor will probably test your urine to check which bacteria is present. It is very important to see a doctor if you are concerned, to rule out any kidney involvement.
What are soy isoflavones and are they useful for women’s health?
Soy isoflavones are a type of plant derived phytoestrogen which may have an oestrogen mimicking effect on the body, when required. They may be beneficial to reduce the frequency of hot flushes associated with menopause and may also reduce the loss of bone mineral density in post-menopausal women.
How are menopause and osteoporosis related?
The decrease in female hormones that occurs after menopause can lead to thinning of the bones and the decreased bone density of osteoporosis. There is also an increased risk of fractures.2