Celebrate Women & Women's Health
by Deborahann Smith

"Women can share solutions for issues and can be there as a shoulder to lean on"
— Susan Lark, M.D.

Woman at beachWomen, the supposed diminutive sex, are the very essence of strength — both physically and emotionally. And they have been since the beginning of time. We bear children, are caregivers of our households and the primary caretakers of our communities. It's no secret that we express ourselves differently than men, giving words to our feelings and taking on an empathetic and nurturing role. In addition, women are the social support system for their societies and the cultural bridge between them, allowing important contributions to areas as diverse as the arts, economics and medical science.

So many reasons to celebrate women! But because we excel at multitasking we can often become rundown, even ill — whether from fatigue, emotional imbalance or a host of other ailments. Fortunately, we can also enjoy health, thanks to expert health care professionals, preventive medicine modalities, our personal quest for self-awareness and support from other women, who uniquely understand our feminine health concerns.

This support is vital to our mental, physical and emotional health. "Women come from the oral tradition of sharing information. They can support each other by sharing their experiences and resources," says Tori Hudson, N.D., professor of gynecology at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Ore., and author of Women's Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (Keats). Agreeing is Susan Lark, M.D., a practitioner in Los Altos, Calif., founder of DrLark.com, and author of several books, including PMS Self Help Book (Celestial Arts), and who says "Women can share solutions for issues and can be there as a shoulder to lean on."

Here, in the spirit of support and sharing, Hudson and Lark offer nutritional, herbal and lifestyle recommendations for three conditions common to women: PMS, perimenopause and fatigue.

If you have fatigue, you know it; you're just plain tired. And tired of feeling tired. But do you view exhaustion as your middle name — something you're stuck with — or is it a symptom you should check out? "See a physician if fatigue continues for a month," says Hudson, "because it's important to know the cause. When a woman complains of fatigue, I ask questions about her medical history, perhaps run a few tests, then determine a course of treatment."

Fatigue is associated with several common ailments, including hypothyroidism, blood sugar imbalance, anemia, insomnia, allergies, nutritional deficiency, PMS, perimenopause and menopause. Fatigue can also be an indicator of a more serious condition such as chronic fatigue syndrome, lupus, multiple sclerosis, diabetes or cancer. Because these conditions are treated in different ways, a professional evaluation is key.

A prevalent form of fatigue is what Hudson calls "functional fatigue," which is what you might experience during "midlife stress, if you're trying to do too much and feeling depressed, wondering what your life is all about."

In addressing functional fatigue, Hudson works to increase metabolic rates and support adrenal function since the adrenals produce hormones that help your body handle stress. She recommends improving sleep patterns and looking closely at nutrition, particularly eating enough proteins and "live foods," including fresh fruits and vegetables.

Hudson also prescribes a multivitamin/multimineral supplement and B vitamins. If your fatigue is associated with hormonal imbalances, she may also recommend DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone — a hormone produced by the adrenal glands). However, DHEA shouldn't be taken by those with a history of breast cancer or diabetes. Consult your health care provider about DHEA supplementation.

For additional energy, Hudson advises that you take licorice root or Siberian ginseng. "Ginseng can improve fatigue within six weeks if the underlying cause isn't more serious," she says.

Premenstrual Syndrome
It's that time of the month again. And when you're feeling bloated and irritable, it's truly a challenge to celebrate women's health. Instead, you may be tempted to eat every piece of chocolate within 10 square miles, yell at everyone in sight or take a week-long nap.

The cause of PMS is unknown, although imbalances in nutrition, neurotransmitters and the estrogen/progesterone ratio are all suspected. There are literally more than 150 symptoms of PMS, and you may experience several at once. This includes mood swings, insomnia, food or sugar cravings, water retention, breast tenderness, weight gain, acne or headaches — which you'll generally experience during the second half of the menstrual cycle, just before bleeding. These symptoms may range in duration from one day to two weeks.

Fortunately, there are several natural solutions for alleviating PMS, according to Lark. "In fact, you can help yourself feel better in a few weeks by focusing on diet," she says. Begin by eating more whole grains, proteins, fresh vegetables and fruits, and eliminate foods that aggravate PMS, including sugar, salt, fried foods, alcohol and caffeine. In addition, Lark recommends supplementing your diet with vitamins and minerals shown to counteract PMS (see "Mood Food," right).

Exercising throughout the month, including doing plenty of stretching to prevent muscle constriction, is crucial for relieving PMS, Lark says. "Exercise can prevent lower back pain and cramps by strengthening the back and abdominal muscles, plus reduce mood swings by balancing the autonomic nervous system."

Last but not least, you can also help yourself by practicing controlled breathing through meditation or yoga, taking warm baths and getting a massage — all of which Lark suggests for relaxing, loosening muscles and increasing oxygen to the uterus.

You've heard of menopause, but what about perimenopause? If you're like many women, you may have been perimenopausal for several years without realizing it.

Perimenopause comes from the Latin word peri meaning "around or close at hand," so perimenopause means close to menopause. "Close" can be a bit misleading, however, as perimenopause can actually last 15­17 years, from your late 30s to your early 50s when most women experience the onset of menopause.

You can tell you've entered perimenopause by your age (this can be in the mid- to late 30s and includes the entire decade of your 40s) or by your symptoms, which mostly involve changes in your menstrual cycle, says Lark. Your periods may come closer together or farther apart; blood flow may change from lighter to heavier, from less days to more days, or vice versa. During this time, PMS symptoms may also begin or worsen.

"There are two patterns of perimenopause: estrogen-dominance and estrogen-deficiency," Lark explains. "If you're estrogen-dominant, you'll probably have a heavier menstrual flow; and you may develop uterine fibroids or fibrocystic changes in your breasts. If you're estrogen-deficient, you may experience a lighter flow, vaginal dryness, sleep disturbances and hot flashes."

What can you do to counteract these symptoms? "A good diet will allow most women to navigate through perimenopause quite nicely," Lark says, citing that Asian women have fewer problems with perimenopause because their diets are rich in soy, seafood and more wholesome foods. She recommends an emphasis on fruits and vegetables, and fish at least twice a week. If you eat meat, substituting free-range chicken for red meat, and adding buckwheat to your diet can help your body eliminate excess estrogen.

Lark's supplement list for perimenopause includes B complex, vitamin E, magnesium, calcium and especially flax. "Flax is the best thing I've found for regulating periods," Lark says. "Also, by taking two tablespoons of flax oil a day for the entire month there is less menstrual cramping." For heavy periods, Lark prescribes soy and quercetin supplements. She also finds that the herb chasteberry is good for regulating menstrual cycles, as is applying natural progesterone skin cream during the two weeks before bleeding. The hands, breasts and thighs are areas where progesterone is easily absorbed into the system.

What's the most important advice for women regarding their health? Think preventively, Lark and Hudson agree, with emphasis on nutrition, exercise and regular checkups. "Women's lives are very multifaceted," Lark says. "They need to take care of themselves to maintain their level of health and well-being."

Deborahann Smith is a freelance writer and book author in Boulder, Colo.

Photography by: Sandra Johnson