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Written by:  Carol McGarrahan
Date: October 1, 2012

Women have come a long way in the past century, from winning the right to vote to gaining ground in the workplace. But "having it all" can sometimes feel like "having to take care of it all," which is why busy women often take unhealthy shortcuts that can lead to serious health problems.

The idea that women can have a career and raise two or three children and look fantastic while doing it, and have a clean home to boot, is unrealistic, says Dr. Annie Nedrow, associate director at Duke Integrative Medicine. Many families have moved away from the typical gender roles, so men and women share household responsibilities. But women still shoulder a lot of tasks, and to save time, they take shortcuts that shortchange their health over the long haul.

What begins as cutting a few corners in your 20s, can become a downward spiral that winds up causing health problems down the road when women are in their 30s or 40s, Nedrow says. "It's a snowball effect that I see all of the time."

Here are the top five ways women cut corners and how it affects their health.

1 Not getting enough sleep.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults sleep, on average, seven to nine hours per night, but 37 percent of adults in the U.S. report regularly sleeping fewer than seven hours a night, and women are more likely to report difficulties during the day from sleep loss. Lack of sleep has been tied to health problems such as increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack and stroke, according to a 2009 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the effects of sleep loss.

2  Eating junk food.
It's easy to fall into the convenience of buying fast food for lunch and dinner or to raid the vending machines at work for a quick snack. Not only are fast foods typically high in calories and low in nutrients, but research is uncovering evidence that junk food is truly addictive and can lead to inflammation in the body that puts people at higher risk for obesity, heart attack, diabetes and cancer.

A study published in June in the Public Library of Science One journal analyzed the inflammatory responses of rodents fed control diets, a lard-based diet or a "junk-food" diet that consisted of things like cookies and chips. "The diet that consisted of human junk food caused the most inflammation and dramatic metabolic changes," says Liza Makowski, assistant professor of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and the study's senior researcher. "These animals (on the junk food diet) ate more, gained more weight, and showed more signs of inflammation and more signs of stress in their tissues," Makowski says. In fact, the rats, like people, could not stop eating the junk food.

A 2010 study published in Neuro-science by scientists from The Scripps Research Institute showed for the first time that the same brain chemistry behind drug addiction fuels the compulsion to overeat.

And if that's not enough bad news about junk food, studies also show it can affect your mood. When people regularly eat commercial baked goods like doughnuts or fast foods such as pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs, they are at a greater risk for depression, according to a recent study reported in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

3  Not exercising.
The benefits of exercise have been widely acknowledged. Exercise benefits both mind and body and can actually increase productivity by relieving stress and boosting blood flow to the brain. The "2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans" by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports strong evidence that exercise lowers the risk of early death, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and colon and breast cancer, along with preventing obesity. Physical activity may also improve sleep and reduce depression. In 2011, less than half of women ages 18 and older met the physical activity guidelines for aerobic exercise.

When it's tough to even fit in a quick walk, Nedrow suggests parking as far as possible from a destination to force a walk.

4  Foregoing regular checkups.
Regular health exams can catch problems early and prevent disease. See womenshealth.gov for prevention and screening recommendations for women.

5  Neglecting emotional and social well-being.
Being healthy is about more than physical fitness. Busy women often sacrifice social ties that make up a vital part of a healthy lifestyle. Since depressive disorders account for close to 42 percent of the disabilities from psychiatric disorders among women, compared to 29 percent among men, social networks — not just online — are all the more critical for women, according to the World Health Organization.

Nedrow, the Duke Integrative Health physician and mother, says it's challenging for women to take care of themselves, especially if they are single mothers. She recommends reading The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself From Destructive Thoughts and Emotions by Christopher K. Germer, Ph.D., and Sharon Salzberg, to help women focus on self-care.

Even taking five or 10 minutes a day to focus on thankfulness or relaxation can help. Baby steps can make a big difference.

Carol McGarrahan is a Triangle health writer and editor.


Local Co-ed Starts Group to Promote Girls Health

Camille McGirt, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, believes it is important to start healthy habits at a young age, which is why she and her sister founded Healthy Girls Save the World, a new organization in the Triangle aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles in young girls ages 8-15. McGirt says women of all ages need a holistic approach to health that focuses on mind, body and social well-being, and not just the absence of disease. Learn more at healthygirlssavetheworld.org.

Triangle Mom Loses 40 Pounds, Improves Health

Simone Lemieux, a 44-year-old veterinarian in Fuquay-Varina and mother of two boys ages 3 and 5, has made significant changes in her life in recent years with help from the Duke Integrative Medicine program, where she is a member. Lemieux, who suffered from chronic pain, began with small steps, such as exercising 10 minutes a day in a pool and making changes to her diet.

"I was professionally burned out, and I was exhausted, and I had all of this pain, and I decided that I needed to make some changes," she says. Through regular exercise, pain treatments and an anti-inflammatory diet rich in beans, fruits and vegetables, Lemieux shed 40 pounds and feels healthy enough to set fitness goals such as participating in a 1-mile swimming competition.

Lemieux no longer keeps unhealthy snack options around the house and talks to her children about making healthy choices. She knows that the steps she has taken are challenging for many women and that she had the luxury of taking a year off of work to recharge, but says women who don't have that option can still make small changes, such as taking one yoga class a week.

"I think women put themselves last and so these things automatically get sacrificed if you don't make time for yourself," she says.

— Carol McGarrahan



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