"...We can honour our femininity by seeking to see symptoms as imbalance first rather than issues. This in no way intends to remove the need to seek medical assistance when symptoms are unbearable, rather this is an invitation to become more aware of your own body.
To become mindfully aware of your body’s natural cycle and the intrinsic fluctuations that you go through as a woman, and to, more imperatively, seek to care for yourself within your lifestyle...."
What if secret women’s business was not a secret?
It is not surreptitious that as women we experience life quite differently to men. We are surrounded by omnipresent matters of inequality in the workplace, within the home, and within healthcare; at the same time inequality is pervasive in our current culture not only as it relates to gender, so too within many other aspects of our lives.
Today however, this article is intended to discuss the ubiquitous and paradoxical nature of women’s health and wellbeing. We will address how women see their own health as it relates to the definition of what health actually is, the impact of stress on a women’s body, the article will also incorporate what it means as well as what it looks like to look after ourselves as women within our lifestyles, a lifestyle medicine approach.
Though the history of inequality stems centuries, there are many perspectives in health that indicate that the strongly voiced feminist movement of the 70’s had a paradoxically good and bad effect on women’s wellbeing. While there was an assurgent of advocates for women’s rights and a demand for liberation, little actually flowed down into the educational institutes and at the individual level of empowerment from a perspective that enabled a holistic identification of what it truly meant to be a woman, and how to care for one’s self as a woman (Read: Women and Health- the key for sustainable development).
Meaning, although nearly half a century has past and the general state of women’s health and disease as it relates to men’s is actually quite balanced, even statistically better than men (see leading causes of death statistics here), as women there is still a high level of naivety and inattentiveness as to how to best care for ourselves within our lifestyles. To mindfully live a life that seeks balance and understanding of our innate femininity, rather than to shy away from that which makes us unique and divinely different.
With all this in mind, the question to be asked is: why do we shy away from that which makes us unique as women? Do we know and understand what women’s health truly is? Or indeed, the more pertinent question is: is this societal feeling of health imbalance, and indeed the less that reported statistical analysis of women’s wellbeing as it relates to subjective wellness, due to how we as women actually value our own health?
How do we as women value our own health?
How, as women, do we care for our bodies holistically in a manner that respects femininity, difference, as well as the neurobiological, and biological differences that make us who we are apart from, and inherently diverse to men?
Over the years it is becoming overt within both research and the media, that while there is a definition of health and wellness as “more than the absence of disease” (See World Health Organisation definition of health here) there are certain elements to this statement that bring up a multiplicity of paradox’s between theory, research, politics, policy and what those in the frontline see and how they react to presenting symptoms. There seems to be, and not unique to women’s health, an assumption within the mainstream medical model that we, as humans, are faulty. Many practises are disease orientated. Indeed, “symptoms” seemingly mean something is terribly “wrong” and there is a need to test, confirm, and fix. Meaning, while a regular GP visit may seek to alleviate symptoms, and at times intervene in ways that are seemingly preventative (for example, an “I am tired” may be meet with blood tests, the standard mental health check, additional scans and checks etc), the reality is for most women this “care”, while preventative in some manners, is paradoxically far from preventative in others.
You may ask, why?
What if preventative health was less about seeing symptomology as “wrong” and in need of testing, and instead asks what is my body telling me? More specifically, how do I see myself as a woman and how have I been honouring myself lately?
As women, are we actually aware of how to listen to and honour or bodies and minds in a uniquely feminine way? Are we aware of, have we been taught, or are we simply ignoring the real differences between objective female health and subjective feminine wellbeing?
Are we as women able to see the “I am tired” not as something “wrong”, but rather as a symptom that indicates a dire need to respect the state of rest? To honour that, as women, there are times where rest is a requirement of the body in order for the natural inherent cycle, the fluctuating endocrine system of the female body?
Dr Christiane Northrup writes an eloquent article on the Medicine of Empowerment in which she stresses the importance of being mindful of the feminine difference, and what that means to women’s wellbeing:
As a physician, I’ve seen time and time again how our inner guidance also comes in the form of bodily symptoms and illnesses—especially when we are living lives devoid of pleasure, joy, and hope. Our illnesses are designed to stop us in our tracks, make us rest, and bring our attention back to the things that are really important and that give our lives meaning and joy— aspects of life that we often put on the back burner until “someday.” The insights catalysed by decades of medical practice as well as my own health problems challenged everything I learned in medical school and residency training about women’s health. Over the years, it became abundantly clear to me that premenstrual syndrome (PMS), pelvic pain, fibroid tumours, chronic vaginitis, breast problems, and menstrual cramps were related to the contexts of an individual woman’s life and her beliefs about herself and what she thought was possible in her life. All of these factors are associated with very real biochemical changes in our cells. Learning about their diets, work situations, and relationships often provided me with clues to the source of women’s distress—and, more important, what steps needed to be taken to relieve that distress. Over the years, I have learned to appreciate the thoughts, beliefs, and behavioural patterns behind medical conditions in ways that simply aren’t addressed in medical training. These insights are the missing link to optimal health on all levels.
As I have developed more sensitivity to these patterns of health and illness, I have come to the conclusion that without a commitment to looking at all aspects of our lives and accessing our power to change them, improving habits and diet alone is not enough to effect a permanent cure for conditions that have been present for a long time… (source)
This highlights that, as women, we need not be under subordination of our bodies – with knowledge and understanding of who we are as women, physically, mentally, and socially we become empowered to look holistically within, to transcend stress and suffering and into the core of who we are without denigration or self-judgment, and with an honouring of the feminine within us.
What about the stress?
What exactly is the impact of either ignoring symptoms (to push past the tiredness) or to extensively “fix” rather than prevent through lifestyle? In one simple answer: this creates undue stress on the body and mind, which in turn perpetuates a cycle of ill health and disease.
Research over the years has illustrated that stress has a significant impact on the body. In a state of stress our bodies react disrupting the normal equilibrium – increased levels of cortisol are released and sustained; this toxic to the body not only impacting states of homeostasis, so too enduring stress causes changes in neurobiological patterns and thus has the potential to make negative structural changes to our DNA (read more about your DNA & epigenetics here).
Specifically, for females’ stress can have a huge impact on the regulation of the reproductive system and our menstrual cycles; where, when under stress we may find our bodies reacting with disorders such as:
- Dysmenorrhea or menorrhagia
- Painful menses
- Sexual disfunction (i.e. low libido)
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
- Hot flushes
- Yeast infections
- Vaginal dryness
- Uterine Fibroids
- Gynaecologic Cancer
- Interstitial Cystitis
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
- Pre-menstrual Syndrome
All of which can disrupt a woman’s life in ways that may not be easy to accommodate, which of course may perpetuate the stress creating a downward cycle of physiological and psychological illness and disease (refer to this article for more information on this perpetual cycle).
Indeed Singh, Sharma, & Rajani (2015) stated:
Neuroendocrine system plays a vital role not only in supporting normal physiological function but also during stress. It influences the endocrine and the reproductive system to help in adaptation to the increased demands and maintains homeostasis in response to environmental stressors. However, elevated levels of the end product i. e. cortisol, has a range of side effects including disruption of normal luteinizing hormone (LH) rhythm, hence affecting the menstrual cycle. College‐going young females, frequently experience a variety of menstrual‐related complaints, including dysmenorrhoea, menorrhagia, irregular menses, and menstrual‐related mood changes. A common complaint is Pre‐Menstrual Syndrome (PMS) which is a cluster of troublesome symptoms like backache, fatigue and irritability that develops 7–14 days before the onset of menstruation and subsides when menstruation starts.(Read:Impact of stress on menstrual cycle)
And albeit these injurious effects are reversible, what if rather than allowing stress to take a hold of our lives, we allow ourselves, and by way of modelling - teach our daughters, customs in which we empower ourselves by living in respect of our femininity with lifestyle medicine in the forefront of our minds?
What does it mean to live with lifestyle medicine in mind?
To live in empowerment and understanding is to live with the knowledge that, as aforementioned, we are not victims of our bodies and indeed our bodies and minds cannot be separated. We are innately holistic, and as women intuit beings who can take inner guidance and thus our own health and wellness initiatives from the body and mind.
We can honour our femininity by seeking to see symptoms as imbalance first rather than issues. This in no way intends to remove the need to seek medical assistance when symptoms are unbearable, rather this is an invitation to become more aware of your own body.
To become mindfully aware of your body’s natural cycle and the intrinsic fluctuations that you go through as a woman, and to, more imperatively, seek to care for yourself within your lifestyle.
What would it look like for me to look after myself within my lifestyle?
Whereas within the western culture there is a tendency to “push through” our bodies signals (symptoms), specifically for women the signals that surround our menses, in many parts of the east, and certainly in early Vedic tradition, the signals of the body are meet with attunement and acknowledgement of what sort of imbalance within the system each signal or symptom indicated.
For example, in the Ayurvedic tradition the menses are a time of purification of the body whereby an intuitive inward pull to rest is respected; there is an acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of the body to the earth and the interconnectedness of the feminine to the feminine, and the need for additional care in this time. And while, in the west this may not be easily facilitated there are steps and certain initiatives we can take that enhance our womanly wellbeing.
1. Cultivate a space that focusses on mindfulness of your body: make time for a meditation practice that focuses on body awareness. Know your body, begin to understand how your body is unique, begin listening to its ques with curiosity rather than judgment.
2. Cultivate a space for an awareness of the interconnectedness of your body to the earth. When is your cycle in relation to the lunar calendar? What is your affect in relation to your cycle? Are there physical, mental, relational aspects that you may notice effect change within your body’s ability to regulate? Enjoy the sunshine – vitamin D is vital for bone health! (https://www.drnorthrup.com/wisdom-of-menstrual-cycle/)
3. Cultivate a space for interconnectedness with other females. We live in a culture where talking about our sexuality, our menses, our moods, our overwhelm and our need for rest, as well as the ailments that surround reproduction are often shunned. Yet, there is a need to talk about these things, to let our friends into our hearts and to acknowledge the parts of ourselves that make us vivacious women!
4. Cultivate a space for a daily massage practice that honours your body.
5. Cultivate a space to bring awareness to your diet: what are you craving? What are your energy levels like in relation to the food and drinks you are consuming? The food we eat, and the drinks we consume have a massive impact on our wellbeing, not simply in terms of health and weight, nor in terms of outward appearance. As a woman the foods we eat can either help or hinder in the regulation and the balance of our systems, particularly within a perspective of lifestyle medicine. As women we need to pay attention to vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc, omega 3, vitamin B, and magnesium, which can be successfully sourced from a wonderful array of fresh vegetables (Source) (Food is information Podcast interview with Dr Northrup: listen here)
6. Cultivate a space to move – where this be a gentle walking meditation or a light yoga session, we are beings intended for movement; light physical exercise can increase oxygen flow to the muscles and thus help with cramps and pelvic tightness, as well as release endorphins that may assist with pain and relaxation.
7. And lastly, rest – it is a radical act of selfcare and respect (Latham Thomas: Self-Care Is a Radical Act - listen here)
With all this in mind, we would love to invite you to experience true understanding and more importantly, to experience and embody women’s wellbeing with Celia Roberts. Please do join us in December as we guide you through what it truly means to care for yourself as a woman. For more information please see our package details HERE. Alternatively details are below.
Further Information on women's health and wellbeing
"One of the researchers that I spoke to, Sarah Romans, who is a psychiatrist in New Zealand and she runs a clinical practice and also does research in the University of Otago, she said something really interesting, that our health is very much influenced by our expectations and our understanding, and a lot of her research supports that notion, that what we almost expect to happen, we may have a bias towards experiencing that in its own way." Sarah McKay
Listen to the podcast here: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/womens-brains/9711718
Women's Spiritual Health Retreat
Saturday 15 December & Sunday 16 December
Specifically designed for woman's health, Join Celia and Samantha as they deepen your insight to women’s health and wellbeing. Understanding how to harness the therapeutic benefits of yoga & pranayama, meditation for women is the essence of this Spiritual Health Retreat.