The basics of living a healthy lifestyle are the same for men and women: exercise, eat right and get enough sleep, and you’re well on the way to being in good shape. However, there are some differences between men and women in terms of dietary priorities and in terms of the health challenges that they might face.
Sadly, women’s health is still a bit of a taboo for some people, and many women grow up without being told much about how their bodies work or how to cope with certain issues, such as period pain, childbirth, and menopause. However, because of the complexity of the female body, understanding women’s health is especially important, for males and females alike.
Biological Differences Between Women and Men
Women and men have different hormone balances, bone structures, and slightly different body compositions. For instance, a man will have more testosterone in his body, while a woman will have more estrogen.1 As a result of these differences, men tend to gain upper body strength more easily and have a lower body fat percentage, while women require some extra fat on their bodies in order to maintain reproductive health.
Common Health Issues for Women
The differences between women’s health and men’s health tend to surface during puberty. Prior to puberty, boys and girls are fairly similar, but when a girl hits puberty, she may start to feel self-conscious about her developing body. Many girls report feeling unprepared for puberty and the challenges associated with it.2
Common women’s health issues, from puberty through to old age, can include:
- A backache from ill-fitting bras
- Moodiness associated with PMS and hormone changes
- Period cramps
- Anemia associated with menstruation
- Lack of knowledge about using tampons or other sanitary products
- Preventing sexually transmitted diseases
- Weight gain relating to hormone issues
- Polycystic ovary syndrome
- Thyroid issues
- Breast and ovarian cancer
Women’s health is a challenge because not only do a lot of women grow up without being given advice about how to take care of their bodies and what to expect as they grow older, but men are not well-informed about women’s health either.
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At the individual level, this creates scenarios where teenage girls begin menstruating and don’t understand what is happening to their bodies. At a larger national or international level this creates serious, systemic issues. For example, “the tampon tax,” which refers to taxes on feminine hygiene products.3 This is why an understanding of women’s health, as well as women’s health issues, is important for everyone, and on both the individual and national level.
How Hormones Affect Women’s Health
Hormone levels can have significant effects on the wellbeing of both men and women. Women need a certain level of estrogen in their bodies in order to remain healthy, primarily because estrogen is used to stimulate ovulation.
It is also used to support the health of the fallopian tubes, cervix, and uterus, and it works in conjunction with other hormones in order to allow for breastfeeding.4 The presence of estrogen also encourages the body to store fat around the hips and thighs and increases the body’s sensitivity to insulin. Finally, estrogen has been shown to suppress the activity of the skin’s glands, which reduces the likelihood that a woman would develop acne compared to a man.
Because balanced estrogen levels are vital for a woman’s well-being, if a woman does not produce enough estrogen, then she may experience side effects including: 5
- Absent or irregular periods
- Breast tenderness
- Increased risk of uterine tract infections (UTIs)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Hot flashes
In contrast, producing too much estrogen can also result in health consequences: 6
- Weight gain
- Swelling of the breasts
- Irregular periods
- Increased PMS symptoms
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Difficulty sleeping
- Hair loss
- Cold hands and feet
Factors That Affect Estrogen Levels
Many factors can affect estrogen levels, from the food that you eat to your activity levels. It is not uncommon for women to experience low levels of estrogen if they are athletes because of something is known as the “female athlete triad.”
Female athletes often exercise to a high intensity while not eating enough. This can reduce their body fat percentages to such a level that it interferes with their reproductive system, and they lose their periods or find that it becomes irregular.
If they continue to train at those levels and retain the low body fat percentage, then they may become at risk for osteoporosis, a condition where bones become brittle and lose density, leaving them at a much greater risk for fractures.7
Though it takes a high level of physical activity, and a prolonged calorie deficit to reduce your body fat percentage to such a level, the fact remains that sufficient body fat percentages are important for estrogen production. Indeed, fat is actually an endocrine organ, and people who carry more body fat are more likely to have elevated levels of estrogen.8,9
Estrogen levels also change with age. As a woman enters menopause, hormone levels will fluctuate, and after menopause, women’s estrogen levels are typically lower.10
Stress and Women’s Health
Excess stress has long-term health consequences for anybody. When individuals are under stress, they produce a hormone called cortisol, which triggers the fight or flight response. Short-term stress can heighten alertness, increase heart rate, and prepare individuals for a burst of effort. On the other hand, long-term stress can put a lot of strain on the body and even increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Additionally, stress can make individuals more prone to risky or destructive behavior. Men and women deal with stress differently, in part because of the hormones that they secrete in response to stress.11 Excess stress levels are not good for any gender, however, and finding ways to reduce stress, either through exercise, meditation, or relaxation, is important.
Taking Control of Your Health
If a woman wants to take good care of her health, then she should prioritize maintaining a healthy weight, eating a varied diet, managing stress, getting enough sleep, and getting sufficient exercise.
Maintaining a Healthy Weight
Medical professionals use something called the body mass index (BMI), which calculates a healthy weight range based on your height. If you have a BMI below 18.5, then you are classed as underweight. If you have a BMI of over 24.9, then you are classed as overweight.12,13
Though BMI is not perfect, it can act as a good guide and can be combined with waist-to-hip ratio measurements to give you an idea of whether you are at a healthy weight for your height.
If you are significantly overweight, losing weight will help reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular problems, certain kinds of cancer, pregnancy issues, strokes, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes, as well as helping to reduce the symptoms of conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome.13
Getting Sufficient Exercise
Weight is not the only marker of health, however. While being overweight may increase your risk of developing a number of conditions, it is perfectly possible to have a “normal weight” and still be putting your health at risk.
Everyone, regardless of their gender and what they weigh, should be aiming to exercise regularly. The government guidelines for recommended physical activity levels say that adults should be aiming to engage in 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week at a minimum, as well as engaging in muscle-strengthening activities at least two days per week.14 In addition to preventing heart disease and managing weight, exercise can also help reduce period cramps, improve mood, and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
Eating a Healthy Diet
The food that you eat matters too. All individuals need to take in proteins and healthy fats in order to ensure that that the body can repair damaged muscle tissue and make the hormones required to stay healthy.
In addition to those, and the general balance of vitamins and minerals that everyone needs, there are some nutrients that are particularly important for women, which include iron, calcium, vitamin B6, and vitamin B9.
Women may need to take in extra iron because they lose blood during their period. Iron deficiency is the most common deficiency that women suffer from, and the symptoms are not always obvious.15 Severe anemia can leave women feeling breathless and looking pale, but a mild deficiency may simply manifest itself as feeling tired all the time, and it does not take long for tired to become the new normal.
Women are often reminded that it’s important for them to take in calcium. Conventional wisdom recommends a minimum of 1000mg a day for women under 50 and 1,200mg a day for women over 50. Some experts disagree and say that two servings of dairy products per day would be enough to support daily needs.
Either way, though, it is important that women take in calcium, as well as vitamin D. Women who are vegan or simply don’t eat a lot of dairy products may be more at risk for a deficiency, and long-term calcium deficiency can increase your risk of developing osteoporosis.16
The B vitamins have attracted a lot of attention, particularly when it comes to women’s health. It was only a few decades ago that it was discovered that folate—one of the B vitamins—was linked to the proper development of unborn babies in the womb.17 A folate deficiency can cause birth defects, including anencephaly and spina bifida.
Vitamin B6 is also important for women’s health. This vitamin can help to protect against colon cancer. In general, it is best to take in vitamin B9 and B6 through fortified cereals, as well as vegetables and fruits.
If you eat a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and sources of protein (nuts, dairy, pulses, lean meats) then you should technically not need to take supplements. However, if you’re vegetarian or vegan and not sure if your diet is varied enough to cover all of your nutritional needs, then ask for advice from your doctor. They will be able to tell you whether you should be taking supplements to stay healthy.
For most people, a multivitamin is a good insurance policy and will cover the most important bases when it comes to required nutrients. There is little need to spend money on special “women only” supplements unless your doctor has told you that you have a specific deficiency or that you are at higher than usual risk for a particular health condition.
Essential Oils for Promoting Women’s Health
One option that often gets overlooked when it comes to promoting women’s health is the use of essential oils to help to reduce stress and rebalance hormone levels. Essential oils can help relieve a lot of symptoms of stress, in addition to providing other health benefits.
Studies show, for example, that essential oils have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and that certain oils, such as lavender, can have mild sedative effects which can improve sleep quality and support the body in the production of hormones and in tissue repair.18,19
Highlighted below are some of the best essential oils for promoting women’s health.
Clary Sage Essential Oil
Peppermint Essential Oil
Peppermint oil is popular with women who are menstruating because it has been shown to reduce cramping and period pains.21 It can also help curb cravings, which can be useful for those who find that in the run-up to their periods, they want to eat a lot of chocolate.
Geranium Essential Oil
Geranium is helpful for dry skin, which is something that a lot of women experience as they age. In addition, it has been found to have stress-relieving effects.22 Women who are struggling with hormonal fluctuations may find that simply inhaling a few breaths of geranium when they are feeling overwhelmed could be hugely beneficial.
Using Essential Oils
If you decide that you want to use essential oils as a part of your daily routine to manage your health, then you should talk to your doctor first. Essential oils are potent and some of them might actually interact with other medications that you might be taking.
In general, most oils are safe to use in a room diffuser or personal diffusers like Healthy or Active MONQ, but if you want to use them topically, you will need to dilute them with a carrier oil like almond, coconut, or jojoba oil. Only use essential oils only on healthy, unbroken skin and keep them away from your lips and eyes.
Remember that while essential oils are good for managing day-to-day aches, pains, and stresses, they should not be used in the place of traditional medical treatments. If you are worried about persistent pain or unpleasant symptoms, then you should talk to your doctor as soon as possible.
Everybody is different. Some women experience severe period pains or PMS mood swings, while some do not. Some women experience irregular periods or periods, while others experience one that goes on for a very long time. With time, you’ll get to know what is normal for your body, and by keeping some of the tips described above in mind, you can be well on your way to optimizing your health.
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