Ladies, can you have as much wine with dinner as your male friends or go to bed as late as they do—but without any extra adverse consequences? Short answer: no. Many studies have concluded that, depending on your sex, you may be affected differently by environment and lifestyle factors.
Understanding how that plays into dietary and even scheduling choices you make every day can help in your quest for better health.
Sleep is essential for life. Go without, and you’ll likely gain weight and be at a higher risk of diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure and stroke, and compromised immune function. According to research, sleep-deprived women find themselves more affected than men running on the same amount of sleep.
A 2017 study of 744 patients concluded that sleep-deprived women are more likely to feel tired and depressed. They had trouble settling for sleep on subsequent nights, and their memory and concentration were also affected.
Because estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone regulate sleep and arousal, hormonal changes can and do influence sleep patterns in women (hence poorer sleep after 40!). So does motherhood: A study of 5,800 parents concluded that mothers get less sleep than fathers. Sleep deprivation increased by 50 percent with each additional child.
There’s one more good reason to hit the sack early, ladies: Women’s circadian rhythm is generally set an hour earlier than men’s.
Tips for better sleep
- Say no to nightcaps: Alcohol interferes with sleep (and increases snoring).
- Valerian and magnesium are often used to help achieve better sleep.
- Avoid screen time (including smartphones) and caffeine before bed.
- Keep your bedroom cool and dark.
- Keep your bedtimes and wake times as consistent as possible.
Each 10 g of daily alcohol increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer by 7 to 10 percent, particularly the hormone receptor-positive subtypes. But … is all alcohol bad? Isn’t red wine supposed to be good for you?
Red wine contains antioxidants called polyphenols, 70 percent of which comprise resveratrol, catechin, and quercetin. They can act as estrogen blockers—hence the protective effect you’ve probably heard about—but the overall conclusion is that alcohol consumption increases breast cancer risk, no matter the choice of beverage.
Nutritionist Melanie Pouliot, CNC, advises caution, especially if you have existing hormonal issues. “Alcohol affects the liver, which in turn affects women’s hormones,” she explains. “That can worsen hormonal imbalances, increasing hot flashes in premenopausal women.”
Consuming more than 1,000 mg of calcium daily is associated with an increased risk of heart disease for men; in women, it’s associated with increased risk of kidney stones and heart attacks. There’s no risk associated with normal dietary intake, though, so help yourself to leafy greens, nuts and seeds, and canned fish with bones included.
Women are four times more likely to develop osteoporosis, a disease that causes bones to become more brittle and prone to fractures. Yes, it’s unfair. Blame it on physiologically lower bone density and earlier bone loss, coupled with estrogen levels that decrease with age (estrogen helps protect bones). When thinking calcium for bone health, though, don’t forget about an essential vitamin. “People should focus on supplementing with vitamin D, more so between fall and spring,” says Pouliot. Vitamin K is also important, as it’s thought to help protect the heart and arteries from calcification (hardening due to calcium deposits).
Moderate to heavy drinking by adolescent and young adult women increases lifelong risk of breast cancer due to a higher susceptibility of the developing breast tissue.
When it comes to iron, being a woman means your body has some extra challenges. “Monthly menstrual cycles and childbirth increase the risk of women developing iron-deficient anemia,” says health educator Ben Kim. He recommends iron-rich foods like elk and grass-fed bison meat, pumpkin seeds, cooked broccoli, and beans and pulses (soak them before cooking!).
Pouliot suggests regular blood tests and awareness. “Women should watch for symptoms such as excessive post-exercise tiredness or shortness of breath,” she says. A food-based iron supplement for women can help if tests reveal low levels.
Iron absorption is regulated in part by hepcidin, a liver-produced hormone. In menstruating women, estrogen has been found to decrease hepcidin synthesis to keep iron levels in balance; however, this balance isn’t always struck.
Did you know? Iron disorders are five to seven times more prevalent in female athletes. Certain types of exercise and inflammation can increase circulating levels of hepcidin, which can cause iron-deficient anemia. Even post-menopause, female athletes can experience decreased iron levels during and after exercise.
It’s not a sin to like treats, but the ones you choose do matter. Whatever your sex, loading up on refined sugary treats disrupts your microbiome and increases your risk of diabetes, kidney disease, cancer, heart disease, neuropathy, and age-related cognitive decline.
A 2015 study concluded that a diet high in refined carbohydrates increases the risk of depression in middle-aged women; by contrast, lowering dietary sugar improves hormonal imbalances.
“Carbohydrates are essential to the human body, but we need the complex ones found in whole, unprocessed foods,” says Pouliot. Our bodies need soluble and insoluble fibers from complex carbohydrates for healthy digestion.
For a treat, Pouliot recommends organic chocolate that’s at least 70 percent cocoa, which contains less sugar and more magnesium to help reduce cravings. A small square a day should suffice. Alternatively, mix Medjool dates, raw cacao powder, and walnuts for yummy, healthy truffles. It’s not about giving up treats, but rather making them better!
Sex vs. gender
Sex and gender don’t mean the same thing. Sex refers to biological factors like reproductive function and hormones. Gender is all about the socially constructed roles and behaviors of men, women, and gender-diverse people. Understanding how both sex and gender affect well-being could give you an edge in preserving your health—and help ensure you get treated correctly if a problem does crop up.
This article appears in the September 2019 issue of delicious living with the title “A Question of Sex.”