Health Newsflash: We’re Not Just Little Men!

Health Newsflash: We’re Not Just Little Men!

by -

Brace yourself. This may come a shock. Are you ready?

Women are not like men.

Our bodies are constructed differently. We have different hormones. Our bodies react differently than men to food, stress and medications. We have different symptoms for the same diseases and even have a few of our own.

While most of these things seem like common sense, gender-related health differences weren’t discovered until about 15 years ago. In fact, most of the things we know now about the differences between us happened by pure chance, Dr. Sherry Marts, vice president of scientific affairs for the Society of Women’s Health Research, explains. Medical studies were conducted with mostly men, and doctors and scientists eventually began to notice that there were differences in the results between men and women.

Formerly the Society for the Advancement of Women’s Health Research, the Society for Women’s Health Research was formed in the 1980s by a group of women researchers, lobbyists, activists, doctors, nurses and administrators. These women wanted to draw attention to the lack of research about the differences between men and women. The group continues to be at the forefront of the fight to explore the differences between men and women’s health.

On its Web site, the society provides 10 differences that make a difference. Marts helped break down the information and explain some of the why.
The way researchers originally started realizing the differences between men and women happened by pure chance. Take painkillers, for example. A kappa opiates were tested in adults who had their wisdom teeth removed. It worked fabulously for women. Unfortunately, the men might as well have been taking Midol. (The scientists did have mercy and give the guys something for the pain.) Scientists discovered that nalbuphine and butorphanol worked better for relieving pain in women.

Since February was all about heart health, (and if you read the Feb. 4 issue of Cincy Chic) you should be well versed in the dangers of heart disease. But just in case you haven’t heard, heart disease is the number one killer of women. It kills 500,000 women a year – that’s an additional 50,000 more women than men a year, according to the Society’s Web site. Heart disease also appears later in women, usually about 10 years, and we are more likely to have a second heart attack than men. One of the things that contribute to heart disease is smoking. And strangely enough, that affects us differently, too. 0208GIBBERMAN.gif

In fact, smoking does more damage to women than it does to men. Research is ongoing, Marts says, but one of the causes may be estrogen. A theory is that estrogen may encourage cancer to grow. Another possibility is that women’s bodies process the carcinogens differently than men. Marts says that it may be that women process them more slowly, allowing more time for them to soak into your system.

Estrogen and testosterone aren’t the only hormone differences either. Women produce less serotonin, making us two-to-three times more likely to suffer from depression. Serotonin is produced in the brain and influences our cardiovascular, renal, immune and gastrointestinal systems. One of the things it does is help to keep cells from breaking down. Marts says that one of the things the Society is working with scientists to find out is why women produce less serotonin.

For now, we already know that depression is linked to more than just your mood; it can affect your health as well. Marts says that any time hormones are shifting women are susceptible to depression – that includes post partum depression and menopause.  If your sleep is disturbed, your have odd aches and pains or suffer from memory loss are all symptoms of depression and are all worth mentioning to your doctor, Marts says.

Big strapping men have another advantage over us as well: their big strong bones. Osteoporosis has been getting more attention lately, especially with celebrities like Sally Fields endorsing the osteoporosis drug Boniva. Marts explains that we start with a lower bone density than men, and therefore are more at risk as we age. She calls osteoporosis “a disease of childhood that manifests in old age.” Basically if you don’t take care of your bones now, your bones won’t take care of you when you are old.

Osteoporosis is preventable by making sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D, but Marts explains that women are decreasing the amount of vitamin D and don’t even realize it.

Called the “sunshine vitamin,” our bodies produce vitamin D when sunlight hits our skin. The new wave of wearing everything with an SPF is helping to protect us from skin cancer, but limiting the amount of vitamin D our bodies produce, Marts says. She said we could counteract that and still protect our skin from damage from sunlight by taking supplements, exercising and eating a healthy diet. (Ever notice how exercising and a healthy diet seems to be the solution to everything?) Exercises that work best are weight bearing exercises and walking.

Other than having lower bone density to start with, diet habits in young women also contribute to osteoporosis. (There’s that diet thing again.) Those starvation diets and late night pizzas won’t seem to be doing too much damage in college, but once we start getting older our bones will be reminding us.

When it comes to your own health, Marts says the best thing to do is to be your own health advocate. Ask your doctor questions. If he doesn’t have the answers, and enough people ask, he will find out.

Also educate yourself. Marts explains that a wealth of information is at our fingertips online. She also suggests visiting a library. “Librarians are great partners in health research,” she says.