Is their health deteriorating, and if so why are they developing health problems?

Women may be living longer than previous generations but the important factor is quality rather than quantity.  Statistics show that women’s major health problems are on the increase with 1 in 2 women over the age of 50 getting osteoporosis and 1 in 8 women get breast cancer.  Women’s bodies are changing shape and becoming more apple shaped due to diet and lifestyle factors and this increase in having fat around the middle of the body drives women to be more at risk of ill health.

This extra weight around the middle of the body is not just a cosmetic problem it is a serious health risk.  Not all fat on the body behaves the same.  Fat around the middle of the body is classed as “toxic fat” because it is far more metabolically active than fat elsewhere and it increases the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, Alzheimer’s, cancer (especially breast cancer) and diabetes.  This central adiposity (as it is medically known) produces blood clotting agents, vasoconstrictors (to narrow blood vessels), inflammatory substances, molecules which control appetite and hormones like oestrogen.  Research has shown that apple shaped women, past the menopause are 88% more likely to get breast cancer. 

What are the key health problems or concerns that women are facing today?

As well as the increased risk of osteoporosis and breast cancer there are other major health concerns including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease and strokes, Type 2 diabetes, cancer in general and Alzheimer’s.

What would you consider the most important nutrients that women need?

I would suggest that women always take a good multivitamin and mineral designed for their age and stage in life (to give good levels of calcium, magnesium, B vitamins and antioxidants) and two of the most important nutrients to add to the multi would be vitamin C and Omega 3 fatty acids. 

What measures should women take to protect themselves against issues in later life (talking specifically about issues that affect the female population)?

These need to be both lifestyle and dietary measures including getting in more exercise to protect bone and heart health.  From the dietary point of view, the most important factor is get blood sugar under control.   I would like to women to know that sugar and foods that are broken down into sugar quickly (e.g. white flour etc) are the major culprits behind most women’s health problems and that having low or no fat is not the issue.  There are many women who would think it healthy to buy a low fat fruit yogurt (even organic) when that pot of yogurt could contain eight teaspoons of added sugar.   Women need to also think about eating little and often, no longer than three hours without eating. When I think of many of the symptoms that women, especially, come into the clinic complaining about they include:  irritability, aggressive outbursts, palpitations, lack of sex drive, crying spells, dizziness, anxiety, confusion, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, fatigue, insomnia, headaches and muscle cramps.  These are all symptoms due to fluctuating blood sugar caused by caffeine and sugar and also long gaps without eating and symptoms which they may blame on getting older but could be controlled by sorting out their diet.

What are your top supplements for women’s health (generic, rather than branded)?

Vitamin D, Omega 3 fatty acids, probiotics and phytoestrogens. 

Looking specifically at fertility, what advice should independent retailers be giving to women in terms of their health and increasing their fertility?

Over the past twenty years, fertility problems have increased dramatically. At least 25 percent of couples planning a baby will have trouble conceiving and more couples are turning to fertility treatments.  

Although it goes without saying that a healthy diet is crucial to a successful pregnancy and a healthy baby, many people are unaware of the fact that diet can help to correct hormone imbalances that may affect a woman’s ability to conceive. Try to include the following:

  • Plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • Complex carbohydrates – wholegrains like brown rice, oats and wholemeal bread
  • Organic foods where possible
  • Oily foods such as fish, nuts, seeds and oils
  • Reduced intake of saturated fats from dairy products
  • Increased intake of fibre
  • Avoid additives, preservatives and chemicals, such as artificial sweeteners
  • Avoid sugar, both on its own and hidden in food

 As well as eating a healthy diet, it is important to know that certain substances are known to lower fertility.  Alcohol will affect both the man and the woman, In fact, drinking any alcohol at all can reduce a woman’s fertility by half – and the more she drinks, the less likely she is to conceive. Research has also shown that drinking alcohol causes a decrease in sperm count, an increase in abnormal sperm and a lower proportion of motile sperm. 

Having four cups of coffee or any caffeinated drink a day makes it 26% less likely that a woman will conceive and drinking only 2 cups of coffee (200mg of caffeine) a day is associated with a 25% increased risk of miscarriage. And problems with sperm health are connected with increased coffee intake.

Alcohol will also make it more difficult to get pregnant with only just three alcoholic drinks or more a week. 

The same is true for the man, as we know that alcohol can lower sperm counts and will also block the body’s ability to absorb fertility boosting nutrients like zinc. It can also cause abnormalities in the head of the sperm which is important for healthy fertilisation of the egg.

As well as looking at the diet there is now a great deal of scientific knowledge about the use of nutritional supplements and their beneficial effects on boosting fertility.   The most important nutrients for fertility are zinc, folic acid, selenium, vitamin E, vitamin C, Omega 3 fatty acids for the woman and for the man plus two amino acids, arginine and carnitine specifically for boosting male fertility.  For more information on how to increase the chances of conceiving see my book ‘Getting Pregnant Faster’. 

And what about the menopause – what nutritional and lifestyle advice should retailers be offering to their customers?

The menopause is a time of change and the female hormones are going to be fluctuating up and down until a woman comes out the other side and into the postmenopause, when the hormones will stabilise.  What a woman eats at this stage can make the difference between having a difficult or easy menopause. 

Below are the key points of my twelve step hormone balancing diet. 

  1. Include hormone-balancing phytoestrogens in your diet
  2. Eat more Omega 3 fatty acids
  3. Increase your intake of fruit and vegetables
  4. Change from refined carbohydrates like white bread and white pasta to unrefined ones like wholemeal bread and wholemeal pasta
  5. Buy organic foods where possible
  6. Reduce your intake of saturated fat from dairy products and meat
  7. Make sure you drink enough fluids
  8. Increase your intake of fibre
  9. Eliminate foods containing chemicals such as additives, preservatives and artificial sweeteners

10. Avoid or reduce your intake of caffeine

11. Reduce or eliminate alcohol

12. Avoid refined sugar either eaten on its own or added to food

Always keep in mind to ‘eat a rainbow’ and that way a woman will be getting a wide selection of antioxidants from fruit and vegetables, which are not only beneficial for anti-ageing but also for heart and bone health.  Pay particular attention to the essential fatty acids found in oily fish, nuts and seeds as these will help control inflammation which can affect not only joints, risk of osteoporosis but also heart and can help to control cholesterol. 

A good intake of fruit and vegetables will keep a woman’s body more alkaline, which is good for her bones, and the consumption of fruits and vegetables, particularly green leafy vegetables and vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables, seems to have a protective effect against coronary heart disease. 

Eat phytoestrogens because they are good for a woman’s general health as well as her heart and bone health.  Research has shown that a daily intake of soya (about 100ml soya milk or the equivalent) reduces the risk of hip fractures by 20-30%. But don’t just focus on soya; have a good variety of all the legumes including chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils. 

The risk of osteoporosis increases with age especially after the menopause when oestrogen levels decline. Other risk factors are a family history of the disease, having a small frame and digestive problems.  Some of these risks, like family history, can’t be changed but there are plenty of things a woman can do to help prevent it.

The most important nutrients for bones are without doubt calcium, magnesium and vitamin D so be sure that foods are rich in these nutrients.  Trace minerals such as boron and manganese also play a role in calcium metabolism.

Calcium is the key component of bone, and essential for bone health throughout our lives.  Calcium is found in dairy products but don’t forget that you can also get plenty of calcium from dark green leafy vegetables, like broccoli, fish with bones, tofu, nuts and seeds.

Vitamin D is necessary for healthy bones and teeth because it helps maintain good levels of calcium, which it does by increasing calcium absorption from food, as well as controlling how much calcium is lost through urine. 

Magnesium is also essential for calcium to be absorbed properly in our bodies and bone density to be maintained.

Finally, as well as eating a healthy, bone building diet a regular exercise programme is crucial for warding off osteoporosis. This is because the more physically active we are, the more bone we will build. Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes exercise five times a week.

Article published in Health Food Business October 2012