What if we told you that at this very moment, you have the power to fend off bladder infections, protect your bones, and slash your risk for breast cancer–without subjecting yourself to major lifestyle changes? That’s right: Just a tweak here and there to your everyday routine is all it takes to minimize or completely prevent many minor (read: annoying) and major (read: potentially life-threatening) women‘s – health problems. Redbook consulted leading medical experts to bring you this low-maintenance guide to keeping yourself healthy for years to come.
1. Walk the dog
Women who are active five or more hours a day–performing such everyday tasks as cleaning the house and dashing to and from their desks–have a 31 to 41 percent lower risk for breast cancer than more sedentary women. Staying active may help slash your odds of getting this disease by reducing your body’s levels of the hormones that stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells.
2. Stop self-treating those “yeast infections”
Sixty-eight percent of women misdiagnose themselves as having yeast infections–even if they’ve had them before. In these cases they’re suffering from a more serious infection, such as bacterial vaginosis (BV) or trichomoniasis, either of which can produce a discharge with a strong unpleasant smell, burning, and itching. If you have BV during pregnancy, it can lead to preterm birth and low birth weight.
Is it ever OK to tackle a suspected yeast problem yourself? If visits to the doctor have twice confirmed that you’ve correctly identified key symptoms (cottage-cheese-like discharge, itching, redness, irritation), it’s probably safe to self-treat. But if you’ve previously misdiagnosed yourself or you get more than three infections a year–a sign you may need a stronger (i.e., prescription) antifungal cream–see a doc when you feel the itch.
3. Ready, set, squeeze
As many as 30 percent of all women in their 30s suffer from occasional stress incontinence–urine leaking during lifting, laughing, sneezing, or jumping. One big culprit: weakened muscles after childbirth. Giving birth can strain the pelvic floor muscles, which contract around the urethra to hold urine in. But 67 percent of women in a recent study overcame their urine-leakage problems by toning up with Kegel exercises.
Even if you did them for the suggested ten minutes twice a day during your pregnancy, try ’em again. “Most women don’t get results from Kegels, because they do them wrong,” says David Staskin, director of female urology at Cornell-New York Hospital Medical Center.
To perfect your technique, lie down, insert one or two fingers in your vagina, and contract the muscles; you should feel pressure on your fingers. You have to do Kegels regularly for four to six weeks to see results; to stay dry in the meantime, cross your legs and lean forward when you feel a cough, sneeze, or convulsive laugh coming on. Research shows that this simple technique prevents embarrassing dribbles in 73 percent of women. If none of the above helps, ask your gyno for advice.
4. Swallow some vitamin C and E …
Both are disease-fighting antioxidants that help protect against ovarian cancer. A new study found that women who took daily supplements of at least 90 milligrams of vitamin C and 30 milligrams or more of vitamin E had almost half the risk of developing ovarian cancer as those who consumed supplements containing smaller amounts of these vitamins. The benefit was found to come solely from supplements; consuming C and E in the form of food didn’t appear to have the protective effect. One reason may be that “women who use supplements tend to be more health conscious in general,” notes lead researcher Aaron T. Fleischauer, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. While the doses in the study were slightly higher than the U.S. recommended dietary allowance for these vitamins, they’re well within what’s considered the safe range, says Fleischauer.
5. … and some folic acid
A recent study of 329 women found that those with cervical cancer or precancerous conditions were 30 percent more likely to be low in folic acid than women with normal Pap smears. Also, if you’re consuming an adequate amount of folic acid when you conceive, you’ll cut in half the risk that your baby will suffer from a potentially deadly neural tube defect. Getting enough of this nutrient is easy: Have one cup of fortified breakfast cereal daily (Total, Grape-Nuts, and many others contain 100 percent of the RDA of folic acid) or take a folic acid supplement (400 mcg).
6. Beat the burn
Anyone who’s ever suffered from cystitis–a bladder infection that causes burning and stinging–knows that it’s no picnic. To prevent repeated bouts:
- Down more water. You’ll pee more, thus flushing bacteria out of your urinary tract. Speaking of which …
- Urinate right after sex. All that thrusting can push infection-causing bacteria into the urethral opening; urinating after sex may prevent the bacteria from traveling up into the bladder.
- Swallow two concentrated cranberry tablets daily. Women in a University of British Columbia study who popped these pills cut their number of yearly bladder infections in half.
7. Get some sun
You may help cut your risk for breast cancer. Exposure to the sun spurs your body’s production of vitamin D, a nutrient thought to help inhibit the growth of tumors. According to several studies, this may help explain why deaths from breast cancer in the sunny southwestern U.S. are half what they are in the Northeast. What’s more, getting some sun may up your odds of conceiving. In a study of 657 women undergoing in vitro fertilization, the greatest number of babies were conceived in the months with the most hours of daylight.
In the spring and summer, you can get all the D you need from 15 minutes of sunshine without sunscreen a day; during the darker fall and winter months, take a vitamin D supplement (400 to 600 IUs), which is as effective as direct sunny rays.
8. Quit smoking already
Fewer than 39 percent of women realize that smoking increases their risk for infertility, cervical cancer, ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage, and early menopause, according to a Yale University School of Medicine study. And even if you want to quit, if you’re a typical smoker you’ve tried–and failed–five times, reports the American Lung Association.
But according to a recent study, you’ll be almost four times as likely to stay off cigarettes for six months if you take Zyban, a new non-nicotine smoking-cessation pill (available by prescription only) in combination with an over-the-counter nicotine-replacement patch (such as NicoDerm CQ) than if you go cold turkey.
The other benefit of this approach: Because it lessens your craving for cigarettes, you won’t have to find another means–such as gorging on food–of satisfying yourself while you quit smoking. Translation: You’ll be less likely to substitute one big butt problem for another.
9. Wear a sports bra
In a recent study of 200 women with menstrual-cycle-related breast pain, 85 percent of those who wore a sports bra daily for 12 weeks reported complete relief of symptoms. “A supportive bra minimizes breast movement, which can be painful when your breasts feel tender and swollen,” says Julia Alleyne, M.D., medical director of sports medicine at Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Center in Toronto. Women with a C-cup or larger get best results from bras with molded cups, which support each breast separately. Smaller-breasted women may prefer compression sports bras, which work by holding the breasts against the body.
10. Ask for this important test
At your next checkup, ask for a blood TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) test; it measures how well that gland–which helps regulate metabolism–is functioning. Disorders of the thyroid are a cause of common troubles, such as between-period spotting, light or heavy periods, depression, weight gain, anxiety, hair loss, dry skin, and fatigue. You must be tested if you’re trying to become pregnant, because even minor, asymptomatic thyroid deficiency can lower your baby’s IQ significantly.
11. Don’t blow off bloating
If you’re constantly puffed up when you aren’t expecting your period, it may signal something serious, such as ovarian or colorectal cancer. True, these conditions are more likely to strike those over 40, but when they do occur earlier, women and their doctors often dismiss the symptoms, since they mimic those of menstrual-cycle-and pregnancy-related woes as well as those of irritable bowel syndrome. Other warning signs: persistent cramps (not during menstruation), frequent constipation or diarrhea, prolonged loss of appetite, unusual fatigue, unexplained weight loss, and rectal or unexplained vaginal bleeding.
Since it can be easily overlooked, there’s an increased chance that by the time ovarian or colorectal cancer is correctly diagnosed in a younger woman, the disease will have spread and become harder–or impossible–to cure. If you have any of the above symptoms, ask your doctor if you should have a colonoscopy to check for colon cancer, and a transvaginal ultrasound, which can detect ovarian cancer in its early stages.
12. Take a look “down there”
That’s right. Once a month get out a handheld mirror and examine the outside of your vagina for:
- New dark freckles. They can be a sign of vulvar cancer, a relatively rare form of skin cancer that can be lethal if not diagnosed early. If caught in time, it’s 90 percent curable.
- Any new lump or bump. It could be anything from an infected hair follicle to a blocked gland to a benign cyst to (less likely) vulvar cancer. Get it checked by a doctor if it doesn’t go away in two weeks.
- Small white spots, or the skin becoming thin or “papery.” You may have lichen sclerosis, a disorder of the vaginal skin (and sometimes the anus) that may be caused by hormonal imbalances and that can be treated with prescription medications. Untreated, LS can cause vaginal lips to shrink and the vaginal opening to narrow.
13. Consider the Pill
It lowers your odds of developing endometrial cancer. This advice goes for all premenopausal women who don’t smoke or have high blood pressure or other cardiovascular-disease risk factors (since in combination with those things, the Pill increases your risk for blood clots as well as stroke). The progestin in the Pill may counteract the effects of estrogen, a hormone known to speed cell division in endometrial cancer. The Pill may also help fight against ovarian cancer, bone loss, menstrual cramps, cycle irregularities, ovarian cysts, acne, and pelvic inflammatory disease.
14. Check out “the girls”
Some 65 percent of you don’t do monthly breast self-exams, research shows. We know your excuses thanks to a study conducted at Strang Cancer Prevention Center in New York. Here’s how to get past them:
- “No one finds lumps that way.” Wrong; 71 percent of cancers in women aged 20 to 44 are found via self-exam.
- “I’m afraid.” It’s scary to think you’ll feel a lump, but this is scarier: The average size of a lump found accidentally (e.g., while showering) by women who don’t perform regular BSEs is one and a half inches in diameter. That’s three times larger (and so, if malignant, at a more advanced stage of cancer) than the average lump found during monthly self-exams.
- “I don’t know the right way to do it.” Get a great how-to tutorial at www.komen.org.
- “I keep forgetting.” Make a pact with a friend to exchange monthly BSE reminders.
15. Sleep naked
OK, so no formal studies have confirmed the wisdom of going au naturel at night. But it’s common sense, says New York ob/gyn Mary Jane Bovo. Those snug jeans, panties, and/or exercise shorts you wear all day tend to trap heat and dampness–and that can create an environment that encourages the growth of yeast and ups the risk of delicate vaginal tissue becoming irritated. Giving the vagina a breather may help you avoid vaginal infections and irritation.