Gynecological health can be intimidating. It’s complex, confusing, and situational. It’s also heavily impacted by sexual activity. Much of feminine health awareness is influenced by safe sex practices and habits. But what happens when you aren’t sexually active? Does it still matter?
The short answer: Yes, yes, and yes. There is so much more to our fertility than our sexual activity. The human body is synergistic; feminine health should be approached from all sides of the spectrum for us to flourish and thrive as whole beings. If you’ve assumed that abstinence means you don’t need to go to the gynecologist, it’s time to make that appointment. Being educated about your own body is imperative, and there’s no reason to fear it.
Regardless of your sexual activity, here are six reasons to proactively care for your fertility health rather than ignoring it until an imaginary “right time.” Because for every woman, the right time is now.
01. Pregnancy isn’t always the answer.
Aunt Flo is a clever one. If you pay attention, her visits can tell you a lot about your body. Everything she does is influenced by what goes on hormonally, how you eat or sleep, your physical activity, and even your stress levels. A “regular” menstrual cycle for one woman may be the complete opposite of the next woman’s. Cleveland Clinic shares that most women have a 21- to 35-day cycle and can bleed anywhere from two to seven days. That’s a big variation.
When your “normal” is thrown out of whack, it’s easy to worry. We tend to link missed and irregular periods with pregnancy. But when you aren’t sexually active, a wonky period can be especially confusing.
Major lifestyle changes, such as a new job or a big move, can take a toll on your body. Sometimes, normal life responsibilities can bog you down. Exceptionally high levels of stress can cause your brain to reduce or halt production of gonadotropin-releasing hormone, which is responsible for jump-starting your menstrual cycle. Sometimes, though, menstrual irregularity can be a sign of something bigger, such as a thyroid disorder or polycystic ovarian syndrome. The point is: Pregnancy isn’t the only thing that affects your cycle, and if something seems off, get it checked out. You’ll have much more peace of mind in the health and well-being of your body.
02. What’s weight got to do with it?
Physiological changes can also shake things up. “Failing to maintain a healthy weight can affect a woman’s menses,” shares Dr. Jenny M. Jaque, MD, division chief of General Obstetrics and Gynecology, associate residency program director, and assistant professor of Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Southern California. Sudden weight gain or loss can disrupt periods. Being under- or overweight can also lead to problems conceiving in the long run. One study in the Oxford Journal of Human Reproduction found that weight reduction in obese infertile women results in improvement in reproductive outcome for all forms of fertility treatment. The American Society of Reproductive Medicine states that “low body weight in women accounts for 6 percent of primary infertility” and that “this infertility can be corrected by restoring body weight to within normal established limits.”
Even if getting pregnant isn’t on your radar, if your goal might include children someday, watching your health now is crucial. Achieving or maintaining a healthy weight can keep your cycle on track. Furthermore, all aspects of your health will benefit from weight maintenance. Ask your doctor about the best approach for your personal situation and needs.
03. Something undiagnosed could be at play.
Some conditions, such as thyroid disorders, impact your period from behind the scenes and have no bearing on sexual activity. For example, your thyroid gland produces thyroid hormones (TH), which regulate your cycle. When TH production levels are high, hyperthyroidism develops. Periods are light and scarce. And because hyperthyroidism is commonly caused by an immune disorder called Graves’ disease, those wonky periods may be a red flag for something more serious.
On the flip side, when TH production levels are low, hypothyroidism develops. Periods are painful, heavier, and more frequent. This could be another indicator of a thyroid issue, which may require additional testing and examination.
04. STDs aren’t the only worry.
When it comes to gynecological cancers, cervical cancer is usually in the spotlight. As the second most common cancer in women, it’s no surprise. Though this disease is associated with an STD called Human papillomavirus, it doesn’t mean you should put gynecological cancer awareness and prevention on the back burner just because you aren’t having sex.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shares that 80,000 women are diagnosed with a type of gynecological cancer every year. “Cancers of the ovaries, uterus, and fallopian tubes are not associated with sexual activity,” Dr. Jaque says. Risk factors for these cancers involve anything from obesity to family history. Even though these cancers are less common than cervical cancer, they’re still something to keep in mind in your master plan to take care of your overall health.
Educate yourself on the different types of gynecological cancers. Read about the role that good nutrition and regular exercise can play in promoting your fertility health. Like most conditions, it’s crucial to pay attention to whatever’s normal for your body. It will ensure that you’re the first to know.
05. Genetics and history paint a likely picture.
Ovarian cancer is the perfect example of a gynecological cancer that isn’t linked to sexual activity. One risk is having a BRCA gene mutation or a female relative who has had ovarian or breast cancer. If either parent has this mutation, a woman has a 50 percent chance of inheriting it, too.
Other gynecological disorders may also stem from family history. A woman is more likely to develop endometriosis if her mother, sister, or aunt has it. Endometriosis causes uterine tissue to grow outside of the uterus. Not only is it super-painful, but it also increases ovarian cancer risk. Endometriosis can hinder fertility as well—Mayo Clinic states that about one-third to half of women with endometriosis have infertility issues.
“More serious problems, like ovarian cysts, aren’t associated with sexual activity either,” Dr. Jaque says. Cysts, which are fluid-filled sacs on the ovaries, can develop during a normal menstrual cycle or after pregnancy. These are known as functional cysts and disappear after a few periods.
However, other types of cysts can cause pain and discomfort in the pelvic region. Sometimes they form in small clusters, creating a condition known as polycystic ovary syndrome. PCOS increases the risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, abnormal uterine bleeding, and pregnancy problems—just to name a few. In some cases, they may burst and lead to internal bleeding.
Protect your feminine health by getting to know your family history. Inform your doctor as much as you can; these are the tools she needs to provide an approach that works for you, including how often you should see a gynecologist for checkups and screening.
06. Stress messes with your equilibrium.
Much like the gut, our lady parts have a balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria. Stress can disrupt this equilibrium. When there aren’t enough of the good guys, an overgrowth of the fungus Candida occurs, causing a yeast infection. Symptoms include burning, pain, itchiness, or a thick white discharge. It can be frustrating and can get in the way of our daily activities.
“This condition has nothing to do with sexual activity,” Dr. Jaque explains. It’s so common that the CDC notes that 75 percent of women will get a yeast infection in their lifetime.
There’s more to our lady parts than sex. Become more in tune with your body regardless of your current sexual activity because honoring your womanhood is one of the best things you can do for your short- and long-term health.
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