Myths abound on women’s health – whether linked to getting pregnant, staying healthy, raising healthy children or coping with menopause. Some are obviously old wives’ tales, but if we look a bit deeper, many have their roots in ancient medicine, and others in plain old-fashioned common sense.
Now a group of senior medical doctors have set up Women for Women’s Health (WfWh), which aims to educate and empower women to make health choices that will improve their lives. Over the past year, WfWh has held more than 20 workshops in London, New York, Mumbai and Dubai, with two myth-busting sessions for women in each of these cities.
We spoke to three experts – Dr Nitu Bajekal, a London-based senior consultant gynaecologist and founder of WfWh; Payal Khanwani, yogi at 136.1 Studio in Dubai; and Kajal Bhatia, a nutritionist from Mumbai; on the little steps that can make all the difference.
First, garlic isn’t just for flavouring our food – it’s also useful for good health.
‘To get the best out of garlic, crush it or chop it and then leave it for 10 minutes before you use it in your cooking,’ says Dr Bajekal. ‘This gives it time to release allicin, which helps fight bacteria and cancer. It’s also good for protecting the heart.’
Second, a high number of people become lactose intolerant in adulthood because cow’s milk contains insulin growth factor. While this helps babies to grow, adults do not require this and the body begins to grow intolerant to this. The result: bloating and digestion problems. Such people can avoid dairy products but should ensure they get adequate doses of calcium from other sources.
Third, if you struggle to get your children to eat their five portions of fruit and veg a day, remember that the portion size for kids is much smaller than for adults, says Kajal.
‘Measure portion size by what fits into your child’s hand,’ she advises. ‘For adults, the recommended portion is 80g. So an apple may be the right size, but for a two-year-old, a quarter or a few slices of an apple could well be enough. For adults, one portion size would be two plums, three dried apricots, seven cherry tomatoes and two broccoli florets.’
ON FIGHTING CANCER
Eating your five-a-day from childhood can reduce your risk of developing breast cancer as an adult by as much as 20 per cent, says Dr Bajekal. This research was published earlier this year by the Harvard School of Public Health, tracking about 90,000 women.
‘Not only do the antioxidants in fruit and veg mop up the free radicals that cause cancer, but the fibre keeps the gut moving so the free radicals are expelled more quickly,’ says Dr Bajekal.
Cervical cancer is caused by a virus called HPV (human papilloma virus), a very common infection that most men and women get in their lifetime, but in a small number of cases, the virus progresses to cancer in women.
It is important to have regular smear tests and have the HPV vaccine as it protects against 70 per cent of cervical cancers, and also against genital warts.
‘Contrary to myth, you can’t catch HPV from toilet seats, holding hands, swimming or sharing food,’ says Dr Bajekal. ‘If you smoke, it’s possible HPV will sit in your cells for longer, and it could develop into pre-cancerous cells or cervical cancer. In men it can manifest as mouth cancer.’
ON TACKLING STRESS
Yoga boosts levels of feel-good hormone serotonin, and if you practise regularly, over time yoga helps you to become more in tune with what your body really needs, says yogi Payal. ‘It can help reduce cravings for junk food, and it can boost your self-esteem.
‘Being self-aware and following the principles of yoga allows for calmness and lowers stress, which in turn is good for blood pressure and the heart. Start by finding a yoga teacher you connect with and try the various classes, from hatha to ashtanga. They’re all different and there’ll be one that suits your mind and body best. If you enjoy it, it’ll help you stay motivated.’
Payal recommends keeping a yoga journal. ‘As soon as you can after your class, and before you get swept up in everyday life again, capture your thoughts,’ she says. ‘Note your experience, sensations, challenges and insights. This will allow you to try new things, laugh at yourself and most importantly, have fun!
‘If you add meditation and regular massages to your schedule, you’ll not only help your circulation, you’ll also de-stress your mind and body and start to feel better about yourself.
‘Find a balance in your yoga practice – some classes emphasise performing asanas and concentrating on postures, while others focus more on relaxation and meditation. Working with the body and mind alone isn’t enough to create the inner strength, balance and good health we strive for. Aim for a combination of asana practise and mindful meditation.’
ON POLYCYSTIC OVARY SYNDROME (PCOS)
Kajal believes PCOS can be managed with diet and lifestyle changes.
PCOS is a set of symptoms caused by elevated male hormones in women, and signs and symptoms of the condition include irregular or no menstrual periods, heavy periods, excess body and facial hair, acne, pelvic pain and problems getting pregnant.
Kajal says if we eat food that is rich in fibre and is easily absorbed by the body, like porridge, it will prevent surges in insulin and blood sugar, and keep hormones more normal.
She advises against excess fruit juices as they create a surge in blood sugar – a small glass with a meal is enough. Plant-based foods are ideal as they keep hormones at a normal level, so fill up on beans, fruit and veg. But even as you adopt these changes, do consult your doctor regularly.
Painful periods are caused by pain-inducing chemicals called prostaglandins and yoga is especially good for washing away these chemicals.
Dr Bajekal says that headstands should be avoided while you are menstruating as they could increase the risk of back flow and could cause conditions such as endometriosis, a disease in which tissue that normally grows inside the uterus grows outside it, causing pelvic pain and infertility.
If you suffer from painful periods, you can reduce the intensity of pain by doing some exercise before or during periods. Walking, running, swimming, Pilates, team sports or gym are all helpful.
‘Most women wait until the pain is severe before they take medication, but if you’re not allergic to medication such as ibuprofen, it’s best to take the appropriate dose two or three times a day before your period starts, or as soon as it starts,’ advises Dr Bajekal.
‘Remember to take NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as Ibuprofen with food to avoid gastritis.’
If you are going through menopause, eat foods that are rich in phytoestrogens, such as kidney beans, berries, cereals and flaxseeds, to help combat hot flushes and vaginal dryness, suggests Dr Bajekal.
‘In areas where women eat a lot of miso, they don’t even need a word for hot flushes!’ she says.
‘If you do suffer from hot flushes, don’t take up high-intensity exercise as it may make the flushes worse because your body might struggle to get back to its normal temperature. Exercise is good for menopause but stick to walking or Pilates if you’re not used to running fast.’