Whether you plan to have children in the near or distant future (and even if you have made the decision to not have children, for whatever personal reasons), being mindful of sexual and reproductive health is essential to overall well-being. Whether you intend to have children or not, you want to avoid any reproductive health problems.
Of course, reproductive health would be more of a concern for women who intend to have a baby sooner or later because reproductive disorders would stand in their way.
Fundamentals of women’s reproductive health
Various lifestyle factors, family history factors, pre-existing conditions and other factors have an impact on the delicate and complex universe that is the female reproductive system. In fact, the female reproductive system is made up of three sub-systems:
- Reproductive organs, that is the ovaries that release sufficiently mature eggs
- The ovaries also function as a gland that releases hormones
- Pituitary gland in the brain
Any abnormality in the pituitary gland or in the egg release function, or in release of hormones from the ovaries, could create reproductive health problems.
It is important to read up and understand human reproductive health when you are in your twenties and thirties, because let’s face it – in all likelihood, although you learnt about human reproductive health and systems as part of sex ed and biology back in school, you were probably either too busy giggling, or too busy making other people (including the teacher) feel uncomfortable.
Well, well… look how life catches up with you. Now you have to spend time reading up on something you have actually learnt before. But, like they say: better late, than never. Besides, these learnings hit us differently as grownups, who can understand the consequences of neglecting one’s health.
Common reproductive disorders in women include
- Early or delayed puberty and/or irregular periods or heavy periods later in life
- Reduced fertility or infertility
- Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome or Polycystic Ovarian Dysfunction where a higher proportion of the male hormone androgen is released.
- Uterine fibroids which are non cancerous growths in a woman’s uterus
Some factors that contribute to reproductive disorders in women
There are various environmental factors that can affect a woman’s reproductive health and although science cannot provide a conclusive list of what environmental factors contribute positively and negatively to reproductive health, there are some pointers one could consider.
- Studies have pointed to lead and mercury exposure as factors that negatively impact fertility.
- There is research to indicate that chemicals which interfere with hormones, known as endocrine disrupting compounds, could affect the whole cycle related to reproduction, right from puberty to fertility and the actual pregnancy.
- A drug known as DES, which is an abbreviation of diethylstilbestrol could create infertility issues and pregnancy complications if it was prescribed to your mother when she was pregnant with you.
A lot of women do not want to hear about occupational effects on reproductive health because they might see it as a spoke in the wheel of the fight for gender equality. However science is science and the reproductive system is delicate. Don’t shoot the messenger.
- Heavy lifting: Lifting heavy loads has been found to reduce the number of eggs in ovaries. It remains to be seen what loads comprise as heavy and the duration of load lifting that is likely to affect fertility. For example, can doing 2 kg weight training also affect fertility? Or are we only talking about jobs like working at loading docks at airports?
- Night shifts: Plants, animals, even fungi and some types of bacteria, adhere to a sleep wake sleep cycle called the circadian rhythm and it is based on the circadian clock – a 24 hour clock, mind you – and it is related to the environment. Humans are designed to be awake in the day and asleep at night. So yes, night shifts are a health concern for both men and women, in general, but in terms of reproductive health, working night shifts has been found to reduce the number of eggs released by the ovaries.
- Chemical exposure: A wide variety of chemicals in factory, production, commercial kitchen and salon set ups can cause a lower chance of getting pregnant, miscarriage or fetal death due to some other reason. Some chemicals can affect the health of the fetus and newborn, having effects like lacking weight at birth, obesity and (an increasingly popular issue in western countries) very early onset of puberty. Breast milk production might also dry up very quickly due to exposure to those endocrine disrupting chemicals we talked to earlier.
- Stress: High stress levels can affect fertility in women and can also cause erectile dysfunction in men.
- Soy formula: Women who were fed soy formula while they were infants have a higher incidence of reproductive health concerns.
- Vitamin D: A deficiency of the sunshine vitamin could result in a higher incidence of fibroids.
How to ensure better reproductive health
Maintaining a healthy reproductive system is linked to being healthy, overall.
- Get sufficient sleep
- Moderate cigarettes and alcohol consumption
- Moderate caffeine consumption
- Maintain a healthy weight – obesity and being underweight both affect reproductive health
- Try to avoid night shifts and burning the midnight oil
- Exercise regularly but no more than 5 hours per week
- Folates or B9 is a good supplement to promote healthy ovulation
- Add omega-3 fats to your diet
- Add plant-based protein to your diet
Conclusion: Reproductive health problems – and more specifically female reproductive system diseases – come from various lifestyle, diet, occupational and family history factors. Mindfulness and healthy practices will go a long way in maintaining an optimized female reproductive tract.