Common health issues in women

In this article you can find out about some of the health issues that can be more common in women.

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Common health issues in women

In this article you can find out about some of the health issues that can be more common in women. This includes information on:

Overweight and obesity

Nearly a third of women are overweight and an additional quarter of women are obese. Obesity can increase the risk of a number of serious health conditions, such as:

  • type 2 diabetes
  • heart disease and stroke
  • some types of cancer, such as breast cancer and bowel cancer

Obesity can also increase the risk of back and joint pain, and is linked with psychological problems, such as depression and low self-esteem.

Obese women are more likely to have problems conceiving and are at greater risk of having complications during pregnancy, such as gestational diabetes (pregnancy diabetes), pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure), miscarriage and the need for a caesarean delivery.

If you are overweight or obese, the best way to reduce your body weight is to eat a healthy diet, reducing the calories you eat and exercise regularly. For more information read our page on healthy weight loss.

You should not try to lose weight whilst you are pregnant, as this may not be safe. For more information read our page on healthy weight during pregnancy.

 

Emotional or ‘comfort’ eating

Emotional eating is described as eating in response to negative feelings such as anger, anxiety or depression. It is possible that emotions can make us less sensitive, or respond less well, to hunger and fullness signals that usually act to help us decide how much we eat. It has been noted that this type of eating is more common in women, and it is also more common in obese than healthy weight individuals.

Emotional eating often leads to people choosing sweet, and often fatty, energy dense foods. Although people eating such foods may be doing so to relieve negative emotions, the lifting of mood after eating such foods seems to be short-lived.

To try and prolong mood improvement, some individuals may start eating large quantities of these foods (binge eating). Consumption of energy dense foods over long periods of time (as may occur with comfort eating) is a risk factor for weight gain. Many studies associate comfort eating with greater risk of obesity.

Emotions, such as feeling angry, sad or stressed, can sometimes be hard to avoid but cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may be a way of helping you to manage your feelings by changing the way you think and behave. Find out more about CBT on this NHS page.

If you’re experiencing difficult feelings most of the time which is impacting on your life, seek advice from a health professional.

 

Breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the UK. Around 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime and 1 in 5 of those diagnosed will be below the age of 50 years.

How to help reduce your risk

Bodyweight
If you are post-menopausal and are overweight or obese, you may be at greater risk of developing breast cancer.

You should try to maintain a healthy weight. To find out if you have a healthy bodyweight and for tips on how to lose weight read our page on healthy weight loss.

Alcohol

There is strong evidence that drinking alcohol can increase your risk of breast cancer. It’s estimated that 22% of breast cancer cases could be prevented by not drinking alcohol. If you do drink, limit your intake to no more than 14 units a week and it is best to spread this evenly over three days or more.

Physical activity
Being physically active can help to reduce your risk of breast cancer. Aim for at least 30 minutes each day. Many types of activity can count towards your daily target. For more information on getting active read our page on physical activity recommendations.

Breastfeeding
If you are a new mum, breastfeeding is not only good for your baby’s health; it can also help reduce your risk of breast cancer.

Diet and breast cancer
Although experts agree the food we eat can affect our risk of cancer, it is more difficult to show that single foods or nutrients increase the risk of cancer or help in prevention. This is because our diets include many different foods, and those foods consist of many different nutrients and chemicals that could affect the risk of cancer.

 

Fact or fiction?
Below we take a look at some of the myths around breast cancer and diet.

  • Dairy foods and breast cancer
    There is a lower incidence of breast cancer in most Asian countries, compared to the UK and other Western countries. One factor which has received a lot of attention is the type and quantity of dairy foods consumed. Some people think the high level of milk and milk products consumed in Western countries is contributing to the higher incidence of breast cancer and that the hormones found in milk are to blame.
    However, there are many differences in the diets and lifestyles of women living in Asian compared to Western countries.

What does the science tell us?
The World Cancer Research Fund, which looks at all the evidence between diet and cancer, have not listed dairy foods as a factor that may increase your risk of breast cancer. They list overweight and obesity (post-menopausal), lack of physical activity and alcohol consumption as the main dietary related factors that may increase your risk of breast cancer. Cancer Research UK states that current research does not support a strong link between breast cancer risk and intake of milk and dairy products.

Contrary to common belief, in the EU, cows are not injected with hormones to increase their milk production and the very low levels of hormones that milk naturally contains are unlikely to contribute to the development of breast cancer.

  • Soy and breast cancer
    The messages around soy and breast cancer can be confusing with some claims of increased and other claims of decreased risk.

What does the science tell us?
Soy naturally contains plant-based compounds called phytoestrogens, which are similar in structure to the female hormone, oestrogen. Oestrogen can attach to the cells of some types of breast cancers (oestrogen-receptor positive or ER positive breast cancers), encouraging them to multiply. A high level of oestrogen has been linked to increased breast cancer risk. So it has been suggested that eating soy as part of our diet may increase oestrogen levels in humans, but this is not the case. What is interesting is that soy phytoestrogens may actually block oestrogen from attaching to some breast cancer cells helping to slow down their growth.

Although some research does suggest that soy intake is associated with a modest reduction in breast cancer risk, it’s too soon to suggest eating more will protect you from breast cancer.

  • Superfoods and breast cancer
    You may have seen stories in the media about certain foods that are supposed to decrease the risk of cancer. These foods are often termed ‘superfoods’.

What does the science tell us?
There is no official definition of a ‘superfood’ and under current EU laws the term cannot be used in the marketing of foods and drinks. No single food contains all the components the body needs to be healthy and function efficiently. And while certain nutrients and components may have health benefits, much of the available evidence comes from experiments in animals or cells grown in a lab, making any findings not as relevant to the average person. Studying whether a chemical found in goji berries may kill cancer cells in a dish in the lab does not mean that eating lots of goji berries will prevent you from getting cancer.

Even when research is conducted in people, superfood research tends to be limited as it often tests chemicals and extracts in concentrations not found in nature and that are not reflective of intake in our diet.

Also, if we stick with only a narrow range of fruits and vegetables, or consume large quantities of one, we are likely to miss out on the potential benefits of a wide range of nutrients and plant-based compounds.

The idea of a superfood may also let people believe that they can somehow balance out other unhealthy habits. No single food in isolation can compensate for an unhealthy eating pattern. Including a superfood does not combat a diet high in calories, saturated fat, sugars, salt and alcohol, or being overweight and having low levels of activity.

 

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis affects over 3 million people in the UK. It is a condition in which bones lose their strength and are more likely to break (fracture), usually following a minor fall. Fractures caused by osteoporosis can happen in various parts of the body, they occur most often in the wrists, hips and spine.

One in two women and 1 in 5 men over the age of 50 years experience fractures, mostly as a result of low bone strength.

Fractures associated with osteoporosis can cause substantial pain and severe disability, often leading to a reduced quality of life. Hip fracture for example nearly always requires hospitalisation and is associated with lower life expectancy.

Bone Basics

Did you know that bone is a living tissue? It changes constantly, with bits of old bone being removed and replaced by new bone. You can think of bone as a bank account, where you make “deposits” and “withdrawals” of bone tissue.

During childhood and adolescence, much more bone is deposited than withdrawn, so the skeleton grows in both size and density. The amount of bone tissue in the skeleton, is known as bone mass. Up to 90% of peak bone mass is acquired by age 18 years in girls and by age 20 years in boys, so it is important to “invest” in one’s bone health even at a young age.

Bone mass reaches its ‘peak’ in our late 20s, but the level of bone mass reached varies from person to person. Bone mass begins to decline in both sexes around the age of 35 years. In women there is a phase of fast bone loss in the 10 years or so following the menopause (when monthly periods stop). This is because after the menopause the level of oestrogen hormone, which protects bones, falls. The decrease then slows but continues throughout the post-menopausal years. In men there is a steady decline in bone strength with advancing age.

The higher the peak bone mass we can get in young adulthood and the slower the loss of bone mass in later adulthood, the better. This is partly determined by genetics, but diet and lifestyle can play a part.

Can we reduce our risk of osteoporosis?

Many risk factors can lead to bone loss and osteoporosis. Some of these things you cannot change like:

  • your genetics - osteoporosis tends to run in families, if a family member has osteoporosis or breaks a bone, there is a greater chance that you will too.
  • your gender: Women are more at risk.
  • your age: Older people are more at risk.
  • your ethnicity - White and Asian women are at highest risk. Black and Hispanic women have a lower risk.

But there are other things that you can change, and there are many steps you can take to help keep your bones healthy.

To help keep your bones strong and slow down bone loss, you can:

  • take regular exercise (you can find more information on the National Osteoporosis Society website). 
  • not drink alcohol in excess or smoke.
  • maintain a healthy weight - having a low bodyweight may increase the risk. Osteoporosis is more common in anorexia nervosa (an eating disorder where a person keeps their bodyweight as low as possible).

Eat a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D
A healthy diet with enough calcium and vitamin D throughout life is important for bone health. You can find more information on calcium and vitamin D in our resources below.

Other nutrients for bones
There are many other nutrients including protein, vitamins (such as vitamin K) and minerals (such as magnesium and zinc) that play a part in maintaining normal bones. These nutrients are all readily available through a balanced diet and, as long as you eat a wide range of foods from all the main food groups, it is likely that you will be getting enough and do not need to take supplements.

 

Cardiovascular disease

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a general term for conditions affecting the heart or blood vessels (includes heart disease and stroke). CVD is one of the main causes of death and disability in the UK, but it can often largely be prevented with a healthy lifestyle.

Heart disease is not a condition only commonly found in men, in fact, CVD kills as many women as it does men. In older adults, it is more common in women than men.

However, there are a few things you can do to help reduce your risk:

  • Maintain a healthy bodyweight.
  • Get your blood cholesterol checked. In 2013 the British Heart Foundation reported that around 60% of women in the UK had high blood cholesterol, which increases the risk of CVD. High intakes of saturated fat can increase blood cholesterol.
  • Maintain a normal blood pressure. Over a quarter of women in England have a high blood pressure (hypertension). You can help to reduce your risk of hypertension by cutting down on salt and alcohol, eating lots of fruit and vegetables, maintaining a healthy bodyweight and increasing your physical activity levels.
  • If you drink alcohol, limit your intake to no more than 14 units per week.
  • Do not smoke.
  • Try to exercise regularly.
  • Enjoy a healthy, balanced diet, including high intakes of fruit and vegetables and dietary fibre, reducing saturated fat and replacing with small amounts of unsaturated fats (like olive or rapeseed oils), and eating at least two portions of fish per week (one of which is oily).

 

Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common, longstanding illness consisting of frequent discomfort in the stomach (abdomen) area and bowel symptoms that cannot be explained by any other disease.

Symptoms include:

  • abdominal cramps, often relieved by going to the toilet
  • bloating
  • diarrhoea
  • constipation
  • frustrated defaecation (needing to go to the toilet but not being able to)

Symptoms can vary from person to person and can sometimes be worse in periods of stress or after eating particular foods.

IBS is thought to affect up to 1 in 5 people at some point in their life, and it usually first develops when a person is between 20 and 30 years of age. Around twice as many women are affected as men. If you think you may have IBS, speak to your GP.

The exact cause of IBS is unknown. However, some people diagnosed with IBS may find that their symptoms improve by making some dietary changes.

The British Dietetic Association has recently reviewed the science and updated its guidelines. Whilst doing this, they looked at some of the common dietary questions about IBS and what the science was currently telling us.

What effect does alcohol have on IBS symptoms?

It is not known for sure, but alcohol may trigger or worsen IBS symptoms in some individuals. If you drink, you may wish to reduce your intake to see if it helps to relieve your symptoms. Make sure you do not drink more than 14 units per week.

What effect does caffeine have on IBS symptoms?

The evidence is limited, and no conclusions can be made. If you feel that your symptoms may be related to your caffeine intake, you could try to reduce your intake to see if it helps relieve your symptoms.

What effect does spicy food have on IBS symptoms?

It is not known for sure, but spicy food may trigger IBS symptoms (diarrhoea) in some individuals. If you think your symptoms may be related to eating spicy foods, you could try eating non-spicy foods for a set period of time (such as a couple of weeks) and see if it helps. However, it is worth considering that it may be the common ingredients used in spicy foods (such as onion and garlic) which are having an effect on IBS symptoms rather than the amount of spice (see fermentable carbohydrates question).

What effect does dietary fat have on IBS symptoms?

It is not known for sure, but IBS symptoms may increase during or after eating high-fat foods in some individuals. Foods high in fat should be limited as part of a healthy, balanced diet. Women should limit their intake of fat to no more 78g per day.

What effect does fluid intake have on IBS symptoms?

This has not really been researched yet but a gradual increase in fluid intake is recommended, particularly for those who suffer with constipation. We should all aim to drink at least 6-8 glasses of fluid a day.

What effect do eating habits have on IBS symptoms?

There is not enough evidence to answer this question. However, try to eat a healthy, balanced diet and have a regular eating pattern (three meals per day). Sit down to eat your meals and do not rush them.

Can restricting milk and milk products reduce IBS symptoms?

You may experience symptoms similar to IBS (such as diarrhoea and bloating) if you are lactose intolerant (lactose is the sugar found in milk). If you think you may be lactose intolerant, it is important to speak to a health professional (such as your GP or a dietitian) for a diagnosis before considering cutting milk and milk products out of your diet.

Do particular types of dietary fibre help alleviate or worsen IBS symptoms?

Dietary fibre is important for health and can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer. Adults should try to consume 30g of dietary fibre per day. Dietary fibre can be found in fruit and vegetables and high-fibre starchy foods (such as oats, high fibre breakfast cereals, wholewheat pasta, wholegrain bread and potatoes with skins). More research is needed on the effect of different types of fibre on IBS symptoms. It has been suggested that supplementing the diet with linseeds may help to relieve IBS symptoms (constipation) in some individuals. Linseeds can be sprinkled on foods you commonly eat in your diet such as on your breakfast cereal, yogurt, casseroles or salads. Supplementing the diet with wheat bran is not generally recommended for individuals with IBS as it does not seem to help relieve IBS symptoms.

Can changing the amount of fermentable carbohydrates in the diet improve IBS symptoms?

Fermentable carbohydrates include FODMAPs. FODMAPs (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols) are small carbohydrates found in certain foods, including some cereals, fruits and vegetables and sugars-free sweets. They are not digested in the small bowel (intestine) but pass through to the large bowel where they are fermented by the gut bacteria. This can increase fluid and gas production in the large intestine, which may increase IBS symptoms in susceptible individuals. There is a reasonable amount of evidence to suggest that following a low-FODMAP diet may be beneficial for some individuals with IBS. If you are thinking about trying a low-FODMAP diet to help manage your symptoms, speak to a health professional (such as a dietitian) so they can make sure you are still getting all the nutrients your body needs.

What effect does gluten have on IBS symptoms?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Gluten has to be avoided in people diagnosed with coeliac disease; a life-long autoimmune disease whereby a person’s immune system mistakes substances found inside gluten as a threat to the body and attacks them, damaging the surface of the small bowel. If you think you may have coeliac disease, it is important to speak to your GP. Currently, there is not enough evidence to suggest that following a gluten-free diet will help to reduce IBS symptoms.

What effect do probiotic products have on IBS symptoms?

There has been quite a lot of research on probiotics and IBS, but the results are not conclusive. There are many different probiotic strains (varieties) and types of products (including live yogurts, fermented milks and capsules). Probiotics are unlikely to hugely improve IBS symptoms, but if you find a particular probiotic product which seems to work for you (try it for about a month) then you may wish to carry on using it.

 

Last reviewed December 2016. 

Useful resources

Some useful resources providing more information about vitamin D and calcium in the diet.

Vital vitamin D

A resource looking at the importance of vitamin D.

Quick facts
Quick facts
Consumer
Consumer
Health professional
Health professional
pdf
Calcium counts!

A factsheet about the amount of calcium in foods.

Quick facts
Quick facts
Consumer
Consumer
Health professional
Health professional
pdf

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