Why does gender matter when it comes to wellness? Is the biology of females so different from males that it warrants a whole separate genre of health? Here we discuss why women’s health is important and answer some common questions.
What women’s health means
Women’s health is a broad term that encompasses the physical and emotional issues that have a particular effect on the well-being of females. Given the differences in the male and female anatomy, it’s not really any surprise that the health issues we face can be very different. For a start, some health concerns are unique to women — pregnancy, menstrual cycles, menopause to name just a few. And there are a whole host of other common conditions that affect women and men differently. For example, women often experience coronary heart disease at a later age than men.1
However, the term ‘women’s health’ is most commonly used to describe sexual and reproductive health (e.g. contraception, fertility and anything pregnancy-related) and female-only conditions such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome.
Why is women’s health so important?
Until recently, the majority of medical research and literature focused predominantly on male physiology. This has historically led to the diagnosis and treatment of females based on male-centred research. As a result, the specific health needs of women have in the past been overlooked. But things are changing. The emergence of ‘women’s health’ has allowed a greater understanding of gender differences and female specific health requirements.
What are some women’s health issues?
Periods, hormones, pelvic health, fertility, sexual health, pregnancy, postnatal depression, incontinence, perimenopause, menopause, HRT, bone health, breast screening – and the list goes on and on. Women experience various physiological changes throughout their life, making women’s health a broad, diverse topic. Here are few common areas:
Periods usually start for girls around the age of 12.2 Many females experience a variety of uncomfortable symptoms in the days leading up to their period. The symptoms are commonly grouped together under the heading of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and include everything from mood swings and tiredness, to bloating, cramping and headaches. These can all be part of a normal menstrual cycle. However, for some women painful, heavy or irregular periods, endometriosis, and more severe PMS can start to affect their daily life.
Contraception helps women to control if and when they get pregnant. There are many types of contraception available to females, including hormonal options, barrier methods, intrauterine devices and fertility-awareness practices. With medical advice, women can choose the best birth control method for their personal circumstances and lifestyle.
Infertility is usually diagnosed when a couple hasn’t conceived after at least one year of trying to conceive.3 Around 1 in 7 couples may have difficulty getting pregnant.4 Fertility problems can affect either partner, but for women the most common reasons for infertility are lack of regular ovulation.5 For example, females with polycystic ovary syndrome don’t regularly release eggs from their ovaries.6
Pregnancy and maternal health
Having a baby causes a variety of physical and emotional changes for women. Whether you’re pregnant, trying to conceive, or adjusting to life after childbirth, it’s a time when many women are very focused on wellness and nutrition. Initially this might be understanding the first signs of pregnancy and exploring what prenatal vitamins to take. Then after birth, it’s important to recognise the signs of post-natal depression, as well as managing incontinence and restoring your pelvic floor.
Menopause is the time when a woman stops having periods at the end of her natural reproductive life. But periods don’t just suddenly stop – it can take a number of years for a woman to go through the menopause completely. Women are said to have gone through the menopause after one year without a period. Many women experience symptoms of perimenopause for several years before reaching menopause.
Being breast aware
Checking your breasts regularly allows you to spot changes. If you notice anything that’s not normal for you, you can then get it checked by your GP promptly. In addition, in the UK, women aged 50 to 71 are routinely invited for a mammogram (a breast screening X-ray) every three years.7
As sex hormone levels reduce after the menopause, reduction in bone mass becomes more rapid for several years. This can make women more susceptible to osteoporosis.8 Women can also be at a greater risk of developing weakened bones if they reach menopause early (before age 45), have a hysterectomy before age 45, or don’t have a period for more than six months (e.g. due to excessive dieting or over-exercising.)9
Women’s mental health
Mental health problems affect women and men equally, but some social factors put women at greater risk – e.g. relatively lower incomes, sexual abuse and domestic violence, responsibility for childcare and other caring responsibilities.10 Men and women also often express mental distress differently.
Nutrition for women
A healthy, balanced diet is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for both men and women. However, there are a few differences.
How many calories do women need to consume daily?
Calories are a way to measure how much energy you get from a certain food or drink. If you regularly eat and drink more calories than you use, you may start to gain weight. This is because our bodies store excess calories as body fat.
The exact number of calories you need will depend on personal factors but will be influenced by the following:
- Physical size
- How active you are
The NHS suggests a daily calorie intake of approximately 2,000 calories for women (compared to 2,500 for men) to maintain a healthy weight.11
7 important nutrients for women
Certain principles of a healthy diet apply to both genders equally. However, when it comes to vitamins, certain nutrients can be particularly beneficial to women’s health.
Blood loss during menstruation can lead to a reduction in iron levels. So, if you have heavy periods you could be at higher risk of iron deficiency anaemia. This makes it beneficial for women to replenish iron stores through their diet.
Food sources include: Liver (but avoid during pregnancy), beans, red meat, nuts, dried fruit, fortified breakfast cereals.
Recommended daily intake for women: 14.8mg for women aged 19 to 50 and 8.7mg for women over the age of 50.12
An important role of calcium is keeping your bones and teeth healthy. As post-menopausal women can be at a greater risk of osteoporosis than men, eating diet rich in calcium can contribute to maintaining normal bones.
Food sources include: Dairy foods, green leafy vegetables, bread (and anything made with fortified flour), fish where you eat the bones (e.g. sardines and pilchards.)
Recommended daily intake for women: 700mg for all adults aged 19 to 64
B vitamins are also important for women’s health. For example, vitamin B6 contributes to regulation of hormonal activity.
Food sources include: Pork, poultry, some fish, peanuts, soya beans, oats, bananas, milk, some fortified breakfast cereals
Recommended daily intake for women: 1.2mg13
Magnesium contributes to the maintenance of normal bones and teeth and to normal psychological function.
Food sources include: Pork, poultry, some fish, peanuts, soya beans, wheatgerm, oats, bananas, milk, some fortified breakfast cereals
Recommended daily intake for women: 270mg (19 to 64 years)14
Folic acid or folate
Folic acid is particularly important during pregnancy because it can reduce the risk of babies developing neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. If you’re trying to conceive, or are already pregnant, the NHS recommends that you take a 400 microgram folic acid supplement daily until you’re 12 weeks pregnant.15
Food sources include: Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, leafy green vegetables, chickpeas and kidney beans, breakfast cereals fortified with folic acid.
Recommended daily intake for women: 200 micrograms. Or a 400 microgram folic acid supplement if you are in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy or trying to conceive.16
Vitamin D helps your body absorb and use calcium. For this reason, it has an important role in the maintenance of normal bones. Protecting musculoskeletal health can be particularly important post-menopause, making it an important nutrient for women particularly in later life. Vitamin D is also a vitamin supplement commonly recommended to pregnant women and breastfeeding mums because of its role in helping babies develop normal bones.
Food sources include: Oily fish, red meat, liver (but avoid during pregnancy), egg yolks, fortified cereals.
Recommended daily intake for women: 10 micrograms17
Eating probiotics can support your gastrointestinal health.
Food sources include: Cultured dairy products and fermented foods such as yoghurts, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, natto, miso, and kombucha.
Men lift weights and women do yoga. Men train to build muscle, while women make getting lean their goal. Fitness is full of misguided gender-based assumptions. This creates damaging gender stereotypes that can place unnecessary limitations on women’s fitness. Fortunately, attitudes are changing.
But should women exercise differently to men?18 There are some physical and physiological differences between the two genders. This includes hormones, base-level strength and the amount of muscle naturally carried. These differences may influence how you choose to exercise, but they don’t have to be a barrier to certain forms of training. Overall, women shouldn’t feel confined to typically ‘female’ exercise. And likewise, for men. You may just have to tweak technique and other parameters to reflect your physical capabilities (e.g. how loose or tight your ligaments are, natural physical strength) and personal fitness goals.
Summary: Why gender matters when it comes to women’s health
From menstruation to menopause, pregnancy to childbirth – the female body can go through a lot over the years. Women’s health recognises these unique experiences and provides specific guidance on how females can better support their wellness.
Last updated: 24 December 2020