Are you putting your health at risk?

Good Health
Monday, March 15, 2010
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Could there be loopholes in your lifestyle that are putting your health at risk in the long term? Joanna Hall explains how to steer clear of them.

For many people, a healthy lifestyle equals eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of exercise. As women, however, there are a number of other things many of us do, or don't, do which can put a dent in our efforts to be the healthiest we can be.

Unprotected sex
The risks: It's easy to get caught up in a moment of passion, but unprotected sex can lead to an unplanned pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection (STI), and some of the latter can have serious consequences.

"Some STIs, such as genital herpes and HIV, have no known cure," says Jill Michelson, national clinical adviser at Marie Stopes International, a sexual and reproductive health not-for-profit organisation .

Chlamydia was the most frequently reported STI in Australia in 2008, with more than 58,000 diagnoses — that's nearly triple the rate in the past eight years. "If left undetected or untreated, chlamydia, and also gonorrhoea, may lead to pelvic inflammatory disease," Michelson says.

What to do: "The only contraception that will protect you from STIs and an unplanned pregnancy is a condom," Michelson says. "Also, if you are having casual sex, it's important to have regular sexual health check-ups because some STIs, such as chlamydia, don't always have symptoms. The only way to find out if you have one is to take a test."

Skipping Pap tests
The risks: A visit to the gynaecologist or GP isn't something most women look forward to, but delaying your Pap smear test can have serious consequences. The test is designed to pick up changes in the cervix, some of which can be due to infections or inflammation, but it can also pick up changes which could lead to cervical cancer — the second most common cancer experienced by women.

What to do: In addition to having a Pap test every two years, according to gynaecologist Dr Elizabeth Farrell, you can also self-examine your genitals so you know what's normal and what isn't. "Examining your vulva and vaginal entrance is important in case of any changes such as the appearance of lumps, lesions, rashes or anything else out of the ordinary," she says.

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Not making time for you
The risks: The pressure to "do it all" still pervades many areas of life, and leaves many women with very little free time, resulting in overstress. This phenomenon prompted Time magazine to run a feature article in 1983 called "The Epidemic of the Eighties", and since then countless studies have linked stress with ill health.

"Anybody with too much stress needs to rein that in," says cross-cultural corporate psychologist Jasmine Sliger. "The body produces stress hormones that make you more alert and raise your blood pressure temporarily, but over time this causes minor damage to the blood vessels, which can cause health problems down the track."

What to do: Simple tactics you can use during the day to claim back some "me" time and relieve pressure include switching off your mobile, putting your answering machine on, or logging out of e-mail for half an hour. You can also take a short walk or, if you have time, treat yourself to an indulgence such as seeing a movie by yourself.

"Even if you are super-busy, try to take a number of short 'time-out' periods during the day," Sliger says. "Allow yourself to put your brain into neutral and relax, even if only for 15 minutes. The more you can put your brain into neutral during the day the better."

Drinking too much alcohol
The risks: Drinking alcohol is a normal part of many people's life but, although a few drinks might take the edge off your stress, long-term heavy drinking poses many potential health problems. These include an increased risk of illness, such as liver cirrhosis, and certain types of cancer, in particular breast cancer. Other health hazards include an increased risk of injury to yourself or others, an unplanned pregnancy or an STI as a result of unprotected sex.

What to do: The current National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines advise men and women to have no more than two standard drinks a day. "To avoid social pressure, it's useful to let people know confidently that you are reducing your drinking for reasons of health, weight, or driving etc," says Dr Claudia Sannibale, a research fellow at the National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. "If you do drink, it's best to do so with a meal, drink slowly, and have no more than one drink per hour, alternating with non-alcoholic drinks."

For the complete story, see the April 2010 issue of Good Health.

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