Women's Health Matters

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Prevention: Live A Healthy Lifestyle

Although we cannot change some of our risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as our age and family history, there are many things we can do to reduce our risk of developing heart disease or having a stroke.

Quit Smoking

Stopping smoking is the single most important thing you can do to lower your risk of heart disease. Not starting is even better. Smoking as few as four cigarettes a day makes you seven times more likely to develop heart disease.

Limit Your Alcohol Intake

The medical consensus is: If you don't drink, don't start. If you do drink, keep it moderate. For women, one drink a day or less is suggested ('one drink' is one beer, a 5 oz. glass of wine or 1.5 oz. of liquor).

Is it True that Alcohol Can Be Good for You?
There is evidence that moderate drinking is associated with a lower risk of heart disease in both sexes. It appears to increase the level of good (HDL) cholesterol in the blood, and it may help thin the blood. However, the benefits of alcohol to the heart are mostly limited to women and men past middle age. For younger people, alcohol's adverse effects probably outweigh any health benefits.

People with a heart-healthy lifestyle are already ahead of the game. If you are already a non-smoker, eating a healthy diet and exercising, you might not receive any extra benefit from drinking.

Drinking alcohol also increases the risk of:

  • stroke
  • some cancers
  • traumatic injury
  • liver disease
  • osteoporosis
  • breast cancer
  • high blood pressure
  • heart arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
  • alcoholism
  • harm to the fetus in pregnant women

Alcohol and Women
Alcohol affects women and men differently. Women become intoxicated (drunk) faster than men because they have less total body water content. As a result, the concentration of alcohol in their blood rises faster. Women also have lower levels of the stomach's dehydrogenase enzyme, which metabolizes or burns up alcohol before it hits the bloodstream.

Women's hormone levels change over the menstrual cycle, and this also affects the body's ability to metabolize alcohol. In mid-cycle and just before menstruation, women metabolize alcohol faster. Birth control pills may cause women to metabolize alcohol more slowly.

Reduce the Stress in Your Life

Stress can be triggered by any event in everyday life. We react to stress with our bodies and minds.

These are some of the ways our bodies can react to stress:

  • pounding heart
  • raised blood pressure
  • muscle tension
  • increased sweating
  • change in appetite
  • rapid breathing spells

These are some of the ways our minds can react to stress:

  • poor concentration
  • increased frustration
  • worrying
  • thinking about stressful events
  • tension and anxiety

Other ways we may react to stress include:

  • waking up at night
  • losing our temper easily
  • walking, eating and talking in a hurry
  • not enjoying previously interesting activities
  • losing interest in social life, family or friends

Good and Bad Stress
The differences between bad, or negative, stress and stress that is positive are:

  • the meaning we attach to that particular stress and
  • how we cope with it

Negative stress – distress – results when the demands on us seem greater than our ability to cope with them.

This chart shows the four stages of stress reaction:

Stage Description
1. Alarm The body feels a "fight or flight response" – arousal, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, slowing digestion.
2. Resistance We make efforts to cope, such as fight, flight or any other useful way to meet the challenge.
3. Exhaustion As our energy reserves are used up, we feel more fatigued and anxious. Our abilities to concentrate and solve problems gradually decrease. At this stage, we have lower resistance to colds, flu and other minor illness.
4. Advanced or Chronic Stress Our stress and fatigue become chronic. Symptoms include errors in judgement, increased irritability and bad temper, disrupted sleep and digestive upset. This advanced stage can lead to serious long-term illness, including cardiovascular disease, anxiety or panic disorders and clinical depression.


Coping with Stress
The first step to managing your stress is understanding what triggers it. Observe your stress symptoms closely for one week. Keep track of the activities and situations that cause them.

When you are faced with a stressful situation ask yourself:

  • What is the situation, event or person that is causing my stress?

  • What is stressful about this situation?

  • How much control do I have over my stress?

  • What exactly am I feeling and how am I reacting to this stress?

You may be able to avoid or deal with the source of your stress. For example, if your stress is caused by having too much to do and never enough time, assess what needs to be done and what doesn’t, and set priorities. Are there people around you who might be able to help? If caretaking is a source of stress in your life, are there people and supports that could help you care for your children or an older parent?

Make sure you are getting the amount of sleep and breaks you need, as well as emotional support from family, friends and/or a counsellor. Finally, exercise may not address the root of your problem but regular, moderate physical activity can be a great stress-releaser.

Maintain a Healthy Body Weight

Being overweight increases a person’s chances of having diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease. Regular exercise and a healthy well-balanced diet are the best ways to maintain a healthy weight.

The Women’s Cardiovascular Health Initiative, at Women’s College Hospital, recommends that your waist size should not measure more than 31.5 inches (or 80 cm).

Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet

Eating nutritious, well-balanced meals will not only reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke but make you feel good too. 

Exercise Regularly

Regular exercise makes your heart stronger and allows it to pump blood more efficiently. This allows you to participate in more activities without becoming fatigued or short of breath, and it helps prevent heart disease and stroke. Aim to do at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise most, if not all, days of the week.


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  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital