“Take control of your health. How you or your body responds to something may be very different from your friend, neighbor or the gal standing in front of you at the coffee shop, so try not to worry or compare yourself to others. You have only one life to live, make it your own and make it your best!”
Kimberly P., MD
What do women commonly overlook when it comes to paying attention to their health?
KP: Women often care for others’ health care needs before tending to their own. We are great at taking family members to the doctor and we call a friend when they’re sick. However, if it’s us getting sick, we call a friend or research “Dr. Google” and get scared when we read something on the Internet.
Going to the doctor is sometimes last on our list. Some of us are too embarrassed or too busy, and others of us are too afraid to hear what the doctor has to say. But regular checkups are so important as are regular physicals to prevent disease. What’s most important is to listen to your body and seek medical care when you think it may be trying to tell you something. But also, lean on your doctor to guide you through your health concerns.
Are there certain diseases that women are more susceptible to that women should be screened for on a regular basis? How often should those checkups be?
KP: I generally encourage all patients to come in every year for at least a checkup. Discussing your diet, exercise, lifestyle, checking to make sure your vaccinations are up-to-date, and having a blood pressure check can prompt conversation for continued health maintenance and surveillance. Tests such as diabetes screening, cholesterol, liver, kidneys, thyroid, and others may be discussed with your primary care physician as well as the interval they are recommended, curtailed individually for you. Blood tests are not necessarily required annually unless there is a medical reason, concern or symptom your doctor wants to check.
There are some screenings that are designed specifically for women. For example, while both men and women can acquire the HPV virus through sexual intercourse, the HPV virus can also make women susceptible to cervical cancer. For this reason, women are encouraged to undergo regular cervical cancer screenings called pap smears. It is now recommended to start after the age of 21 and to have a pap smear every 3 years between the ages of 21-29 and every 5 years between the ages of 30 to 65, unless instructed otherwise by your doctor or with a history of abnormal prior test results.
Breast cancer screening is also important and I recommend annual breast exams with most of my patients who are in their mid-20s and older. The USPTF advises starting mammograms at age 50 and every 2 years after that. Some women may choose to start this screening at age 40 or possibly even younger (if needed) because of personal or family history but this should be discussed with your doctor.
Lastly, we recommend all female patients of child-bearing age to have STD screenings when sexually active, especially when unprotected. Exposure to chlamydia and/or gonorrhea can lead to scarring and fertility concerns for women if left untreated.
When it comes to improving mental health, what are some tips that women (and men) can do to improve their mental well-being?
Good mental health is essential for all people, men and women alike. Our mental health affects more than just our mood. It also affects our energy, sleep, concentration, productivity, relationships, work, weight, eating habits, and so many more things in our daily lives. Depression and anxiety are experienced by most women at least once in their lives and 1 in 5 will have experienced it within the past 12 months. My recommendations are to stay active and try to exercise regularly. Starting with something easy and not overly daunting such as 30 minutes, 3-5 times per week is a great starting place. If you can’t make it to a gym, get out of the house for some fresh air, take a walk and stretch! This will help open up your chest and your heart. Find what works best for you whether its yoga, or for me, boxing. There are so many options to explore, see if anything can strike your fancy and help protect your mental wellbeing. Exercise helps promote endorphins- the brain’s natural pain killer- enhancing mood and sleep – and it can show you great results that can, with time, improve the way you feel.
Meditation is also a wonderful practice for mental wellbeing. It can help gain perspective, reflection, and mindfulness. Lastly, don’t be afraid to talk to someone! Whether it’s a friend, religious figure or getting professional counseling, there are people who care and resources to help, especially in time of crisis.
Everyone’s body is different, but when it comes to the general health for women, are there certain foods they should be eating? Increase in their diet?
KP: First and foremost, try to avoid fad diets. Life is about moderation. It’s OK to treat yourself every once in a while, but find a meal plan that works right for you; something you can sustain and is easy to follow for you. Be mindful of portion size and ingredients that are on the labels. Read the whole label! When possible try to stick to foods that are low in inflammation. Chose nutrition dense foods such as green veggies. Reduce your intake of sugars and processed foods, and opt for whole grains, lean proteins, and leafy greens. Here are some other tips:
- Eat Fiber
- Beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts are great examples. These foods are a great source of fiber and protein and high-fiber diets have been linked with good intestinal health and bowel regularity, decreased cardiovascular disease, are high in isoflavone (soybeans are the highest), and can help reduce PMS and menopausal symptoms.
- Eat Yogurt
- Low-fat yogurt can be beneficial to the intestines as a probiotic to help reduce inflammation in the digestive tract.
- Protect your heart
- 2-3 servings per week of fatty fish (Omega 3 fatty acids: DHA and EPA) such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel can help as an anti-inflammatory for many disease processes including heart disease and stroke.
- Get Vitamin D
- This includes low-fat milk, fish (as listed above) and certain juices. You want to be taking in at least 800 iu daily. For those of us who do not have the time spend basking in the sunlight and naturally building or vitamin D levels (sunscreen also reduces natural vitamin D absorption), a diet rich in vitamin D can help with fatigue, calcium absorption and reduce the risk of various disease processes in our body.
- The Power of Berries
- Eat fruits such as blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and cranberries. They have a high level of vitamin C and folic acid, but also offer a powerful source of antioxidant (protecting the heart and skin, for example) and an anticancer nutrient called Anthocyanin which helps in cell repair.
- Eat Red Fruits
- Tomatoes, watermelon, red grapefruit, and navel oranges provide lycopene, which is a powerful antioxidant.
What vitamins are essential for women? Is it better to consume these in daily supplements or in day-to-day foods?
KP: It is best to get your vitamins and micronutrients in your diet rather than chasing after supplements. Your body is an amazing tool and can more effectively extract the nutrients it needs from the foods you consume than by getting it thru a supplement. However, there are a few diagnoses that may require vitamins:
For example, if you have a diagnosis of osteoporosis, then Calcium and Vitamin D are helpful in bone health. Also, vitamins are essential for women when they are planning to conceive or are pregnant. Taking a daily prenatal vitamin to ensure adequate folic acid and B vitamins are essential.
If my patients really want to take any supplements I encourage Vitamin D, Omega 3 and fiber. These are the most common things lacking in normal American diets, and even a multivitamin does not provide this for you. A daily multivitamin is generally not necessary.
If you are still not convinced please consult your doctor but always be careful when taking over the counter supplements. Sometimes, taking too much can lead to complications such as liver, kidney or heart disorders that you would have never otherwise known or expected.
Responses provided by Kimberly Petrick, MD, Family Medicine Physician at the Kaiser Permanente Santa Monica Office. Some slight grammatical adjustments were made.