Women's Wellness Through Good Nutrition
Why a well planned plant based diet, is the best form of nutrition for women's health and wellness. Written by qualified nutritionist and Positively Vegan magazine editor Ruby RJ Berridge.
As a nutritionist, one question I get asked a lot is;
is it important to look at men and women’s nutrition differently? In short the answer is yes and this is because there are over 6,500 genetic differences between men and women. And even though we have basically similar nutritional needs, certain areas of our biological physiology (mainly hormonal) require different ratios to support a healthy body and happy mind. Although I’m not discussing all of the aspects involved in this fascinating and expansive subject, I hope to give you some ideas on how to improve your own health with basic good nutrition.
Many women at one point or another in their life will suffer from a hormonal imbalance; this can be anything from coarser hair on your face or legs, to sweating at night, to mood swings, to depression, to loss of periods and infertility, or a combination of many factors. In every woman’s body is a monthly hormonal dance between oestrogen and progesterone dependant on the menses cycle. An imbalance in these natural hormonal rhythms can be caused by a multitude of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors such as: a family history of hormonal issues, malnutrition, illness, weight issues, eating excessive animal products, medications that increase oestrogen (including the Pill, the Rod, HRT, etc), stress, poisons or toxins, or even using chemical heavy, household cleaners, body washes, cosmetics and certain makeup*1.
While symptoms vary in individual women, it can be generally simple to address hormonal problems with your diet, if there is not a more serious underlying cause (such as Poly Cystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) or another hormonal disorder); lowering or eliminating your consumption of refined products, like white flour or bread, sugary snacks and all animal products - which have high levels of oestrogen*2 (a great reason to switch to a vegan diet if you are on the fence about it), are the first and most important steps to gain control of your own hormonal health. You could furthermore consider having an allergy and intolerance test done to find out if your hormonal imbalance is being aggravated by something specific in your diet, like dairy or wheat, which are the most common allergies/intolerances in the UK*3.
Other hormone rebalancing dietary ideas for women include the inclusion of daily Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s); good sources of EFA’s include cold pressed oils, nuts and seeds. Making sure you eat a healthy variety of fresh fruits and vegetables is generally recommended for all health conditions; with a percentage of that intake being raw (my personal recommendation is between 40-60%). It is also key to make sure you eat easy absorbable protein with every meal to stabilise your hormones (great sources include; kale, seeds, beans, pulses). And finally on the general hormonal level eating smaller more frequent meals can really help with restoring your own equilibrium.
When your hormones are out of balance this can cause
un-needed stress, and stress itself can also cause hormonal imbalances, it can become a bit of a catch twenty two scenario. Stress is something nearly everyone has to deal with in this modern age, it is quite often unfortunately unavoidable. Ideally you would remove the things from your lifestyle that cause the stress; but this is not always possible, so try and change how you deal with stress, consider using a talking therapy or emotive project alongside any dietary changes; as how you feel on a mental level has great control over your physical body. Exercise too can alleviate stress hormones, because it is using up the stress hormones produced, so try and include regular and varied exercises into your daily routine. It is important to try and enjoy the exercises you do, as you will benefit from them more; try listening to your favourite music on a walk or dancing. You can also try meditation, or mindfulness, as it has been shown in clinical trails to
reduce stress on a chemical level.
Foods and dietary alterations can alleviate certain areas of stress and that includes; the removal of alcohol and caffeine because these do not aid the body in calming down. It is also a good idea to start including more magnesium food sources into your diet (pumpkin seeds, cocoa) as well as starting or maintaining a balanced diet. Try and avoid eating when you are particularly stressed because stress actually changes the digestive response on a physical level: take a step back, breathe, calm down and then come back to eat. There are more than dietary factors to take into consideration when addressing stress problems and stress affects ALL other health conditions - often compounding them and making them worse – including illnesses and diseases (e.g: problems with the lymphatic system, IBS and breast problems) and can cause potential illnesses.
What can I do for breast health? With over 50,000 cases of breast cancer in the UK each year*4 are there foods you can eat to aid the recovery alongside conventional treatments for breast cancer(s) or even possibly prevent it in the first place? With so many women suffering from it, breast cancer could be an article on its own. But of course the answers to this, on a general level, depend on what type of breast cancer you have, your age, any significant genetic markers and other factors; there are still some general nutritional and lifestyle tips for improving your overall breast health. Your weight is very important in health; not only for breast health, but your whole body as it is essential to maintain your ideal weight (as discussed with your GP) as a variety of illnesses and cancers thrive in an overweight body*5.
Taking up regular exercise helps your whole body as you pump out potential toxins. By incorporating a good set of arm and torso movements (as in yoga or swimming) this stretches the muscles around the breasts, therefore forcing out waste, through the lymphatic system. Dry brushing and massage also stimulates lymphatic movement which is essential to maintain good health. You can also use a citrus or tea tree based body cream on these areas as citrus
stimulates lymphatic movement. Personally I don’t use an antiperspirant because it can actually block the pores in the
arm pits causing problems with the lymph around that area. A natural deodorant works well (after an adjustment time if you have been using a chemical based deodorant) and is also more in tune with your body’s chemistry.
As mentioned earlier, it is really very important to eat plenty of vegetables (something even vegans can forget to do), especially green leafy vegetables (preferably organic) for cleaning out your body and establishing good health. As well as eating your fruit and vegetables, you could start including more culinary herbs to your meals. In particular coriander, as it has toxin removing properties*6. Plums, peaches and nectarines are high in antioxidants and are also very good for ‘breast’ health, especially when suffering from PreMenstrual Syndrome (PMS).
PreMenstrual Syndrome (PMS also known as PMT) can be a massive cause of pain for all women, with roughly one in three women suffering from it in their lifetime*7. PMS can vary for every woman on a monthly basis, with over a hundred different symptoms ranging from the physiological to the psychological: including bloating, headaches, backache, cramps, tenderness, sleeplessness, and irritability. PMS varies from woman to woman; with some only suffering a mild discomfort, to others being bed-ridden from pain. Some studies have found a causal link between some PMS symptoms and inflammation which can also be linked to the high levels of toxicity through environmental and dietary factors*8, like overeating of refined sugars and other processed foods, as well as foods containing high levels of yeast, glutamate, or incidental heavy metals. If you’re suffering really bad symptoms and it is affecting your daily life you should always see your doctor as it could be something more serious such as PMDD (PreMenstrual Dysphoric Disorder) or PCOS (Poly Cysistic Ovary Syndrome). Remember that if you feel your doctor hasn’t taken you seriously, you always have the right to ask to see a different doctor at your surgery.
There are plenty of foods and eating habits you can indulge in to reduce PMS bloating and inflammation including: eating smaller meals more often, eating a balanced diet full of fruit and vegetable fibres, making sure you drink enough water (preferably filtered), taking gentle exercise, avoiding caffeine, and having a good amount of omegas (nuts/seeds) and cacoa (as in chocolate!). If you are looking for additional supplementation, Agnus castor has also been used by women for centuries to relieve menstrual discomfort, cramps and bloating and is available in most good health food shops.
In summary, women’s health is an expansive subject with every woman having different experiences of health and wellness. Taking good care of yourself nutritionally is only one aspect in your own health care but it is a very important one as without the right nutrition your body finds it difficult to heal and restore your health. If you have interest in changing your diet for better health and more energy you can always visit a good nutritionist for advice; it could lead to a very healthy and happy you!
If you have found the information interesting in this article I would encourage you to expand your own knowledge on the subject on health and nutrition; read other articles, books and so on as there is plenty of information available freely online and in libraries. Knowledge can help you feel in charge of your own body, knowledge can remove fear, knowledge is powerful.
Please note that nutritional advice is not a substitute for medical advice from your GP, all dietary or lifestyle changes you are planning to make should be discussed with your healthcare provider in advance.
*7: NHS statistics 2014
Ruby RJ Berridge
Clinical and Therapeutic Nutritionist, Certified Counsellor, Positively Vegan Magazine Editor.
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*this article has also been published in The Mighty Women Magazine