In a world saturated by media messages, it can be difficult to sort out the good
information about health from the bad. On a daily basis, we talk to women whose
health choices have been led astray — sometimes greatly astray — by
misinformation promoted as “health facts” in popular magazines, television
shows, or on internet sites. Sometimes even their practitioners are steering them
in unhealthy directions.
Women need good information to make good health choices, but too
often we’re given enticing sound bites of advise that end up doing more harm
than good. Women are sincerely trying to do all the right things for their bodies,
but sometimes they are actually hurting their health in the process.
So what are these health myths? And how do they coax women into making poor health
choices? We could list dozens, but let’s keep it simple: we’ll start
with seven of the most widespread women’s health myths we hear in the media
and from the women we talk to.
Health myth 1: Once you gain weight during menopause, you can’t lose it.
Let's start off by saying that losing weight — before or after
menopause — doesn’t automatically make us healthier. Lots of
women believe that if they can just shed those extra pounds, it will solve all the
other health issues they may have. But, for better or worse, this just isn’t
so, particularly if your weight gain is related to an underlying hormonal imbalance
to begin with.
Many women gain weight during menopause, and though a certain amount of weight gain
is natural as women pass this milestone, it certainly doesn’t have to be permanent.
In our reproductive years, our bodies are biologically equipped with enough estrogen
to facilitate procreation. When we enter perimenopause and estrogen from the ovaries
declines, the body is programmed to protect itself from an abrupt transition in
a couple of ways. One of these natural mechanisms is by storing more fat. Fat cells
provide another source of estrogen in our bodies, particularly after menopause.
Once the body has adjusted to less estrogen, oftentimes weight goes down again.
But menopause is not just about changes in estrogen. Another way our bodies are
cushioned during the switch from reproductive mode toward healthy aging involves
the adrenal glands. As ovarian hormone production winds down in midlife, the adrenals
contribute small, yet significant amounts of estrogen and other sex hormones. This
buffer provided by the adrenals is compromised by chronic stress, which causes the
adrenals to expend themselves on cortisol production, leaving less reserve for manufacturing
sex hormones. Studies suggest that over time, this “cortisol dominance”
leads to deposition of fat in the abdominal area, which in turn deranges hormonal
balance even further. So both estrogen and cortisol can influence the way the body
Everywhere we look, our hormonal pathways are intimately connected, and when one
is out of balance it has a cascading effect on others. This helps explain why weight
gain can be caused by imbalances in estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, cortisol,
insulin, hGH and DHEA — all of which work together to regulate your metabolism
The good news is that regardless of your age, if you provide your body with the
support it needs, you can certainly avoid or reverse the hormonal imbalance that
drives unwanted weight gain — and one of the best ways to do this is through
nutrition. Conventional medicine and the media have long overlooked the fact that
nutrition, in the form of a balanced diet, is essential to hormonal balance. When
women follow a Mediterranean-style diet — which includes cutting back on refined
carbohydrates and increasing quality fats — they often have great results.
Our Nutritional and Lifestyle
Guidelines have helped many women resolve the problem of unwanted weight
gain and maintain wellness through menopause and beyond.
It is very normal for a woman to have shifts in her weight during menopause, but
it doesn’t have to be a long-term change. For more information about gaining
and losing weight at menopause, see our article on
menopausal weight gain. You might also find Dr. Pamela Peeke’s books
helpful. She has dedicated her career to disproving the myth that women can’t
lose weight after menopause. Check out her website
for more information on her Body-for-Life books and programs.
Health myth 2: If you eat a low-fat, low-calorie diet, you will lose weight.
When it comes to reaching a healthy weight, restricting calories may be a quick
fix for some women, but it is not the long-term answer. The key factor in weight
loss is not what we eat, but how we metabolize our food. For much of human evolution,
food was scarce. So our bodies evolved to metabolize food slowly, conserving fat
for our bodies to use as an energy source in periods of starvation. Slow metabolism
and the ability to store fat was an evolutionary advantage, as was the body’s
ability to respond to starvation by slowing its metabolism still more in lean times.
Though we rarely suffer long bouts of starvation anymore, some women still have
these evolutionary responses. So when you cut calories, your body — still
conditioned by evolution to guard against starvation — may respond by slowing
food metabolism, which makes it more difficult to lose weight.
We’ve worked with many women to help them understand that a sluggish metabolism
can lie at the root of an inability to lose weight. For lots of people, increasing
or adding exercise can help increase metabolism. But our bodies are amazingly complex,
and there are other imbalances — often hidden below the surface — that
can bring down metabolism. Here are some you may not hear about:
- Over-worked adrenal glands
- Thyroid imbalance
- Insulin resistance
- Toxic overload
- Food sensitivities
Any of these imbalances can affect the way the body metabolizes food and stores
fat. There are so many different physical issues that affect weight loss, and it
can be overwhelming. Don’t get discouraged. We’ve written about these
issues in other areas of our website and will continue to help women understand
how the interconnection of our body’s systems balance weight. So feel free
to explore and stay tuned for more to come.
Health myth 3: If you eat well, you don’t need a multivitamin.
In an ideal world, everything we put into our bodies would nourish us and provide
the perfect balance of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. The reality is that
the world we live in today is far from perfect. As medical anthropologist and certified
nutritionist Dr. Susan Brown writes in her book Better Bones, Better Body:
As citizens of a contemporary American society we are living a vast experiment.
Never before have humans been so physically inactive, eaten so much processed food,
spent so much time indoors under artificial lighting, taken so many drugs and medications,
undergone so many surgical procedures or exposed themselves to such a vast array
of chemical, electromagnetic, and informational pollution.
Our bodies are continually faced with toxins, free radicals, radiation and heavy
metals. Even if we ate whole foods all the time, we’d still be exposed to
pesticides, hormones and chemicals. The bottom line is, the better you cover your
nutritional bases, the better you can meet your body’s basic needs and bring
it back to a healthy balance. Every cell in our bodies relies on micronutrients
to function properly. The least we can do for ourselves is take a top-quality multivitamin-mineral
complex. Choosing a vitamin-mineral that is fully bioavailable to your body is also
important. To learn more about vitamins and women’s health, see our article
on choosing the best multivitamin.
Health myth 4: As you age, your body requires less sleep.
Yes, it’s true that our sleep changes as we get older, but it’s not
true that we need less of it. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians,
“Most of us require about eight hours of sleep at night to feel fully alert
when we’re awake.” You may realize that you’re not getting a solid
chunk of sleep like you used to — many of my patients complain that they are
more easily woken from sleep or that it is more difficult to get to sleep than when
they were younger — but this doesn’t mean you don’t need the hours.
Waking more easily can be due to natural changes in your sleep cycle pattern. After
around the age of 50, we begin to spend less time in the deeper phases of the sleep
cycle and more time in stages I and II, which are lighter and may leave us more
susceptible to disturbances throughout the night.
Tips for good sleep hygiene
Many things we do before bedtime can raise our cortisol levels, disrupting sleep
patterns. Here are some suggestions to consider. For a more lengthy discussion on
sleep, see our article on insomnia.
- Exercise as early in the day as possible, rather than in the evening.
- Enjoy your last meal of the day well before going to bed. (Eating bumps up cortisol,
- Try not to use your computer after 8:00 PM.
- Avoid violent or disturbing books, television or movies before bed.
- Steer clear of family upsets and finances before bed.
- Before resting, take a moment to write down any thoughts that keep you from feeling
Sleep disturbances in women can stem from a wide variety of factors, such as daily
stress, a partner who snores, stimulating activities before bed, drinking or snacking
late in the day. Or, you may have pain, hot flashes, anxiety or some other internal
imbalance disrupting your sleep. As we age, we are also more prone to sleep apnea,
restless leg syndrome, or side effects to medications that can disturb sleep. Good
sleep depends on many things, and one simple place to start is by looking at the
amount of artificial light you’re surrounded by before bed.
When it’s dark, a part of our brains known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus
(SCN) lowers body temperature and prompts the release of melatonin. Melatonin is
the hormone that helps our bodies prepare for sleep, while cortisol is the hormone
released when we are exposed to light. In the presence of light — natural
or artificial — the SCN increases the body’s temperature and sends a
message to the adrenals to release cortisol. Cortisol, also released in response
to stress, is one of the hormones that tell our bodies that it is time to be alert.
In the past, we worked until the sun went down and rested when it was dark. Our
modern lifestyles allow us to work, play and be awake at any hour — day or
night. Of course, this is convenient, but it comes at a cost to our sleep patterns.
For women who are having trouble with sleep, be sure you allow time in dim light
or darkness to give the brain a chance to move into sleep mode.
You may also find it helpful to keep a pen and paper near the bed so you can write
down the thoughts keeping you awake. Writing down the thoughts gives you the freedom
to let go of concerns for the time being.
Health myth 5: Sex drive decreases with age.
Many women report that sex gets more enjoyable as they age. But sometimes the hormonal
fluctuations that occur during and leading up to menopause can make sex one of the
last things on your mind, leading lots of women to fear that it will only get worse
as they age. Fortunately, decreased sex drive is often a temporary situation.
As we approach menopause, all three of the major sex hormones — estrogen,
progesterone and testosterone — can be out of balance. Testosterone is the
primary hormone related to the libido. So if you experience the very real and natural
hormonal imbalance that occurs during menopause, it isn’t surprising that
your libido may suffer. To learn more about the physical causes and solutions of
a low libido, see our article on low sex drive in women.
The physical problems related to sex, such as pain and vaginal dryness — once
pinpointed — are relatively easy to solve, but what’s often more difficult
to address are our emotions around sex. Whether you’ve grown apart from your
partner, feel unattractive because of hot flashes, mood swings or little sleep,
or something else entirely, sex can feel like an enormous chore — and women
may say, Oh well, it’s just a fact of life. The older I get, the less I want
Sex drive is so complicated, and there are lots of issues related to the psychology
of sex that come up as we age. One aspect of sex many people underestimate is that
women have biological differences from men in the ways they are turned on. Women’s
brains are much more responsive to communication and connection. They often find
it easier to engage in sexual thinking when they connect with their partners conversationally.
When partners ask, How are you today? How was your day? and truly listen
to the response, it’s much easier to feel connected. As many of us have figured
out by now, most women need time — with conversation as well as foreplay —
to become fully aroused.
It’s also extremely difficult to enjoy sex when we don’t feel
sexy. And it’s hard to think of ourselves as sexual beings after a stressful
day of work or a night without sleep — not to mention being constantly bombarded
by images of teens as the standard of sexual desirability. A woman’s desire
for sex is rooted in how connected she is to her own sensuality. Once we take time
to rekindle our enjoyment of sensual pleasures, it becomes much easier to engage
in sexual relations.
Health myth 6: Statin drugs are the best way to control high cholesterol levels.
Many women are fearful of high cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease.
It’s true that heart disease is a very real concern for women as they age,
and lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol is one way to lower risk. But going
on a prescription statin for life is certainly not the only way to bring
LDL cholesterol down, and it may not be the best way to reduce risk in women with
no prior history of heart disease. The statin drug ads in magazines downplay the
fact that there are other, natural ways to keep your lipid profile at healthy levels.
First it’s important to understand that cholesterol is not the enemy. Without
cholesterol our bodies would not function. We need cholesterol for cell membrane
health, memory and neurological and brain function. Equally important is the fact
that cholesterol is the precursor to all of our sex hormones. So women
who’ve worked hard to incorporate low-fat, low-cholesterol diets in an effort
to be healthy, may actually be doing more harm than good.
Statin drugs work by inhibiting an enzyme known as HMG-CoA reductase, which
controls the rate of cholesterol production and LDL clearance in our bodies. The
downside is that inhibition of cholesterol can bring about many side effects, including
muscle pain and weakness, and more dangerous kidney damage and deterioration of
fine motor skills and brain function.
What’s more, some scientists question the effectiveness of pharmaceutical
statins on patients who don’t have heart disease, particularly women. In analyzing
the evidence from years of trials with statins, they have found that only 1 in 100
people is likely to benefit. For women with no prior history of heart disease, hypertension,
or smoking, this number — sometimes called the “number needed to treat”
(NNT) — may be much lower!
Supplements like red yeast rice and fish oil can work effectively as natural statins
— without the side effect profile of pharmaceutical versions. If you must
be on a statin drug, consider supplementing with natural coenzyme Q10 (which is
inhibited with the use of statin drugs, sometimes leading to muscle pain) and red
yeast rice. (Please do this under the guidance of a qualified practitioner of functional
medicine or Traditional Oriental Medicine.)
Our bodies function best when cholesterol is at a healthy balance, and an improved
lipid profile can best be achieved naturally. The place to start is with your diet.
Eliminating processed and refined ingredients (including trans fats as well as fat
“substitutes” high in corn syrup and other chemicals), limiting carbohydrates,
eating fresh whole foods from the source as much as possible, and getting adequate
amounts of healthy fat are ways to lower and maintain balanced cholesterol levels.
By eating real cholesterol and healthy oils, you can naturally regulate insulin
levels and trigger enzymes that convert food into energy. Cholesterol from food
has the ability to regulate your body’s internal cholesterol production. Be
mindful of the kinds of fat and cholesterol you eat. Especially for those with a
strong family history of high cholesterol, we suggest limiting saturated fats.
Health myth 7: You need to exercise 30–60 minutes per day to have any impact on
We know firsthand how difficult it is to find the time to exercise. It’s one
of those things that always slides to the bottom of the list whenever something
else comes up. And it can seem nearly impossible to carve out an hour for exercise.
But over and over we hear how getting at least 30 minutes a day of exercise is crucial
to a woman’s health.
That’s just not so. “Bursting” is an exercise method where you
quickly and repeatedly bringing your body to an extreme and back again — to
the point where you’re breathing so heavily, you might not be able to talk.
If you exercise in bursts, you may not require more than 20 minutes three to four
times a week to improve your health. No matter how busy you are or what sort of
shape you are in, you can benefit from this time-efficient method — as long
as you keep at it regularly.
Studies on various patterns of bursting show significant health benefits from many
diverse timing regimes, so don’t worry too much about checking heart rate
monitors or other gadgets. Just start by pushing yourself to your natural limit
and staying there for one minute. And if you can’t make it the full minute,
that’s fine too! Start by bursting for 20 or 30 seconds at a time, and build
up to the minute mark slowly.
As humans, we are meant to move, and whatever way you choose to do it works with
the bursting concept. If it’s cross-country skiing, dance, yoga, walking,
swimming or something else — you don’t have to go to a gym to build
strength or increase your metabolism. The most important thing is that you get to
the place where you’re breathing and moving your body at peak intensity.
Bursting is also beneficial for the prevention of osteoporosis. Studies show that
when the body is brought to its limit in unexpected short bursts rather than long-term
routine loading, it stimulates the bone-building cells in your body to make more
If you can burst four times during a 20-minute work-out you’ll trigger a whole
cascade of positive metabolic changes that improve your lipid profile, muscle volume,
and respiratory capacity — which is the best way to ensure long-lasting weight
loss and optimal health. If you absolutely can’t find 20 minutes to exercise,
try doing a minute-long burst four to five times throughout the day. The key is
to listen to your body, remembering to factor in your condition, to burst within
your limits, and to build on that capacity. This way you can learn what your body
is capable of, and what it needs to do, to stay fit over time.
Truth about women’s health begins with you
With so much coming at us on a daily basis about what is healthy and unhealthy,
it’s easy to lose track of our own instincts. Everything you read, see or
hear passes through your personal filters — and we want to remind you to trust
those filters. Listen closely to what feels right for you, and don’t be afraid
to do something against the grain if that is what your body desires. You
have the wisdom to find your own best way to health. We are here, if you need a
hand along the way.
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