Encouraging reproductive health in women is a complex endeavor. On the surface, it requires education and outreach initiatives for young girls and women. It also includes the invaluable aspect of engagement from health care providers regarding women’s reproductive health care needs.
These initiatives would inform them about their reproductive needs and encourage them to explore their reproductive care and health maintenance options. However, these simple efforts often become mired in politics, familial, social, religious traditions and funding battles.
What is Reproductive Health?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), reproductive health is a condition by virtue of which individuals can enjoy a responsible, satisfying, safe sex life, in which they have the ability to reproduce as well as the freedom to decide if, when and how frequently to reproduce.
The purpose of this article is to identify the elements of reproductive health education and care women in general need to know.
The nutritional needs of women change significantly, as they progress through their lifecycle. This is largely due to their monthly cycles and the nutritional requirements of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. It is important for women to maintain balanced diets to protect their reproductive health.
Calcium and Iron
Adolescent girls need significant amounts of iron and calcium. During this life phase, they start their menses and are still growing. Getting the appropriate amounts of iron and calcium allows their developing bodies to build strong skeletal and metabolic foundations before entering their childbearing years.
Iron and Folic Acid
Women have special nutritional requirements related to their monthly cycle. The extended blood loss may cause many women to become anemic, significantly iron deficient. Before and during their period, women need to increase their intake of iron rich foods.
Iron and folic acid also play significant roles in the reproductive health of women who want to become pregnant as well as women who are already pregnant. Pregnant women are also at risk for anemia, because a growing fetus draws on its mother’s nutritional stores to supply its needs. Folic acid protects the fetus by preventing neural tube defects like spinal bifida. Women in their reproductive years need to maintain optimal levels of these nutrients. This includes women without plans to become pregnant. According to WebMD.com, more than half of U.S. pregnancies are unplanned.
Calcium and Vitamin D
As women enter menopause and the bone protecting benefits of higher estrogen levels wane, they need more calcium and Vitamin D in their diet. These two nutrients protect bone density.
If the amount of calcium and Vitamin D available in the system does not adequately meet the body’s metabolic needs, it will be taken from the bones. This is why menopausal and postmenopausal women are at a higher risk for developing osteoporosis.
Women experience regular hormonal fluctuations beginning with adolescence and continuing through menopause. Some women experience periodic as well as chronic hormonal imbalance. Hormonal imbalances can cause weight gain, acne, fatigue, depression, headaches, irritability, pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), and other debilitating symptoms.
To fight these symptoms, women can establish dietary and lifestyle habits that support hormonal balance:
- Cardio: Exercising at a moderate to vigorous intensity level for 30 minutes at least 5 times per week.
- Strength training: lifting weights and/or performing calisthenics, which exercise all of the major muscle groups at least twice a week.
- Get adequate sleep of at least 7 hours per night.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Manage stress levels and keep them low.
Well Woman Exams
Around age 16, young women should have their first annual well woman exam. The exam is typically performed by an obstetrician/gynecologist (OB/GYN). They will complete a pelvic exam, a breast exam, and a pap smear (a test that checks secretions taken from the cervix for abnormalities). The purpose of the exam is to check a woman’s general health status and check the reproductive organs for abnormalities like fibroids or cancer.
Since gum disease is often associated with pregnancy complications, experts recommend that women who are planning to conceive in the immediate future get a dental checkup to be sure the teeth and gums are ready for pregnancy.
Taking a prenatal vitamin in the months leading up to planned conception can help prevent serious birth defects, morning sickness and preterm delivery, ask your doctor.
Choosing Appropriate Birth Control
Women should also educate themselves and research appropriate birth control methods as these choices can make a difference when one does decide to conceive, as in the case with hormonal contraceptives that block ovulation, which can take some time to resume. These include the patch or the ring.
Depo-Provera requires long term planning, as it can take six months to a year for ovulation to resume after one stops taking the shots.
A woman’s reproductive health is important for her well-being and the well-being of any children she might carry. A healthy diet, good fitness habits, and regular check-ups will support a woman’s efforts to achieve and maintain a healthy reproductive system.
Every woman needs to educate herself about the specifics of reproductive health and feel comfortable discussing their needs with the health care professionals that they trust.