health

'I speak with doctors regularly. Here are 6 things I've learnt about women's health.'

One of the best things about being a health writer is having the opportunity to speak with some of Australia's top medical experts on the daily. 

From GPs to cardiologists and gynaecologists, I'm forever picking the brains of doctors and chasing all the professional advice from those who know best. And goodness, it's fascinating.

But if there's one area of medicine that's confusing as hell, it's women's health. 

The fact is that there's so much misinformation – so many common myths and misconceptions – floating around that it can be exhausting trying to navigate the health space, and figure out what's actually true. 

Watch: If your period was a person. Post continues after video.


Video via Mamamia.

That's why I wanted to share some of what I know. AKA the most important things I've learnt from interviewing doctors over the years.

So I've pulled together six things to know about women's health. Straight from the doctors' mouths. 

1. Women are more likely to be misdiagnosed than men.

Ever walked out of a doctor's office and felt your symptoms were... not heard? Or thought it was normal to experience excruciating period pain, and essentially be told to get on with it?

According to multiple studies, women are far more likely than men to be misdiagnosed by doctors when it comes to conditions such as ADHD, heart attacks, strokes and mental health issues.

Whether it's endometriosis, depression, anxiety, ADHD, ADD or autism, there's a whole heap of common medical diagnoses you're probably more likely to miss... just because you're a woman. 

In a feature article for Mamamia, I talked to many doctors who said this is not only due to a lack of research into these health issues but also the history of gendered notions and stigmas that cloud possible symptoms and diagnoses in women. 

Then there's the fact that many women find it embarrassing to talk about not only their sexual health, but their mental health too. Sadly, this means so many women end up going through life struggling with undiagnosed conditions.

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Medical doctor and psychiatry resident Dr Kieran Kennedy told me, "It’s true that many diagnoses are often delayed and missed when it comes to mental health, and for women there are definitely certain conditions that fly below the radar both mentally and physically." 

When it comes to conditions like endometriosis, President of the National Association of Specialist Obstetricians & Gynaecologists (NASOG) Associate Professor Gino Pecoraro said: "Australian data unfortunately still suggests that it can be many years (around seven) from the onset of symptoms until the diagnosis is finally made and effective treatment commences." 

When you think of just how painful this condition is – and the impact it has on not only your physical and mental health, but your relationships, too – seven years is a very long time to wait for a diagnosis.

2. There are side effects of the contraceptive pill no one talks about.

Question: Do you know that the most common reason for women to stop taking the pill

Nope, not because they're ready to start a family. 

It's actually due to mental health issues.

While many women will experience little to no negative side effects taking the pill, there are many more who report things like a serious loss of libido, depression, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts.

As the most commonly prescribed form of contraception in Australia – something that one in four Australian women between the ages of 18 and 49 use – this is... not okay.

While some women will decide to go off the pill, many of us will stay on it – or not even be acutely aware of these side effects. 

When I interviewed professor and author of This Is Your Brain On Birth Control, Sarah Hill, for a Mamamia feature on the side effects of the pill, she told me that oral contraceptives are affecting women’s thinking, emotions and behaviour. 

"There has been a growing body of research that suggests that women who are on hormonal contraception are at greater risk of developing depression and anxiety than women who are not," said Professor Hill. 

"Research suggests that these differences stem from differences in hormonal and neurotransmitter activity in the brains of hormonal contraception."

"The stress response of pill-takers looks very similar to that of people who have PTSD or have experienced trauma. This is also something that is linked with depression and anxiety. There isn't a clear answer, yet, for why this happens and there is a critical need for new research on this," she explains.

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"In addition to impacting mood and the stress response, hormonal contraceptions can impact sexual functioning and who we are attracted to, the way our brain processes rewards, the structure of the hippocampus and hypothalamus, how hungry we feel, our ability to persevere on difficult tasks, and certain aspects of our memories," said Hill. 

Just in case you missed that part – the pill can literally influence who we're attracted to. How crazy is that?

"The effects are pervasive because there are sex hormone receptors on cells in almost all key areas of the brain." 

While every woman is obviously different, we think it's worth understanding the possibility of psychological trade-offs you could face with taking the pill before deciding if you should use it.  

3. Women are more likely to have depression.

When it comes to the gender gap in depression, the numbers are unsettling. 

Studies show that women, regardless of age, are twice as likely as men to have depression. 

In fact, according to Beyond Blue, around one in six women in Australia will experience depression and one in three women will experience anxiety during their lifetime. 

And there's not a single, linear cause. 

The gap in the rates of depression can come down to several risk factors – including hormonal differences, socialisation differences and stressful life events.

Dr Kennedy told Mamamia: "Burnout, depression and anxiety are among our most common mental struggles, and for women who are juggling competing demands, staying strong for everyone else and feeling a pressure to 'do it all' means significant mental health diagnoses are often still missed."

While there are a lot of things that can cause you to feel frustrated, angry and stressed out, if these are feelings that aren't really going away, this may be a sign you're struggling right now.

Dr Kennedy said recognising the signs and symptoms of mental health issues in women and understanding the factors that contribute to these conditions is a really important step towards not only helping yourself but also others around you.

"We’re making real ground when it comes to increasing awareness and acceptance for diagnoses that impact our mental health. However, these are conditions in women's health that still have big delays in being diagnosed."

4. Hormonal contraceptives don't cause infertility. 

When it comes to women's fertility, this is one of the most common myths getting around. Chances are you've probably heard or read something about how going on birth control for long periods is bad for your fertility, making it harder to get pregnant.

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However, according to experts, this isn't necessarily true.

In an article on fertility myths, Dr Imaan Joshi assured, "What people typically mean when they worry about infertility with methods such as the contraceptive pill (coming off it may delay return of periods for some months), or the IUD (which may cause up to 20 per cent of women to have no periods, which some women worry is abnormal/wrong), is the side effects of what may happen when they stop the contraception and are actively trying to conceive."

"However, there’s no evidence that any contraceptive currently on the market causes infertility."

Bottom line? You don’t need to take a 'break' from birth control, unless of course you don’t need it, don't want to take it anymore or if you're experiencing symptoms or side effects that are messing with your physical or mental health (as we discussed above).

"The idea of needing a 'break' or drug holiday from the combined contraceptive pill is a very old-fashioned idea that was popular in the 60s and 70s," said Professor Pecoraro. 

"The only reason to stop taking the pill is if the pregnancy is desired or you are having an unwanted side effect from the pill or any of its constituents."

When you go off of the pill, experts say the effects should stop immediately and usually the hormones will be out of your system within a few days.  

5. Women need easier access to longer consultations.

According to numerous research, women not only have higher rates of depressions and anxiety but they're also more likely to suffer from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders.

According to medical practitioner Dr Preeya Alexander, these kinds of complex cases can take longer to manage in a consult – but currently, GP visits are too short.

"In my own experience, female patients often require longer consults because the nature of the presenting complaint can require more time to sort out and often patients present with multiple complex issues that need to be dealt with in a consult," she shared with Mamamia.

"Women need easy access to long consults so that they can have a range of issues easily dealt with in a consult."

She said women's health issues like contraception complications, preconception care, period pain, pain during intercourse and heavy period bleeding take more time to manage in a consult.

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"For patients experiencing mental health issues, family violence and sexual health issues, we often need more time with these patients because there are often a complex range of issues to deal with."

Meaning there's an increased need for more time to listen to a patient, assess their condition, and provide expert advice.

"We need time in consults to truly hear our patients and their entire story. We need time to examine them, if it is required, and explain complex information so that the patient can be empowered and make an informed decision about their health."

"Time is critical and a rise in the rebates for long consults will enable more GPs to spend the time with patients that patients so desperately require – particularly right now."

With longer consultations, she said doctors will be better able to provide patients with options for management and help them make an informed health decision. "It takes time to empower patients with knowledge."

6. Heart disease is the number one killer of women.

Fact drop: Women are three times as likely to die of heart disease than breast cancer. Surprising, right?

"Over half a million Australian women have some form of heart disease, ranging from heart attacks, heart failure to common heart rhythm issues like atrial fibrillation, also called AF or AFib," heart surgeon Dr Nikki Stamp told me in an article on how to improve heart health.

"A lot of women don’t know that heart conditions can impact them. We still think it’s a disease of our fathers and brothers – but heart disease is the leading cause of death for women."

So, get your heart checked!

"Having your heart checked is not difficult or painful. Simple tests like having your blood pressure checked, your blood sugar to assess for diabetes and your cholesterol can be done quickly and easily by your GP and give you a good idea of your risk of heart disease," said Dr Stamp.

For free help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation’s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or at [email protected] You can also contact  Lifeline on 13 11 14 if you or someone you know needs assistance.

Were you surprised by any of the above facts we've learnt about women's health? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

Feature image: Getty

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