As a woman, you’re probably busy taking care of work, family, home, and everything in between. It can be all too easy to ignore or put off caring for your own needs. But when it comes to your health, it’s important to place yourself first.
Sometimes it’s really obvious you need to see a doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms: a dangerously high fever, constant vomiting or excruciating pain. But some symptoms of serious illness are easier to ignore, or maybe too embarrassing to bring them up to a healthcare professional.
Payal Bhandari, MD, is an integrative functional medicine physician and medical director of one of the nation’s top integrative medical centers, SF Advanced Health in San Francisco, California. She has identified symptoms women commonly try to ignore, but could indicate something serious may be brewing inside of their body. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you may want to take a proactive approach to learn more about what your body is communicating to you. It could help you prevent a simple, fixable underlying health concern from turning into a major disease down the road.
“People have their own stool habits,” Dr. Bhandari said. “Maybe you always have to go after you’ve had your cup of coffee in the morning or have some other consistent pattern, so you know when your bowel patterns change.”
Changes that are most concerning are unusual and persistent constipation, ongoing diarrhea, the feeling that you can’t empty your bowels completely and even seeing blood in the stool.
“People either don’t want to talk about it or face it,” Dr. Bhandari said. “They will usually put that off for a while until these symptoms impact their daily life or cause major discomfort.
Change in bowel patterns can be directly linked to dehydration, an underlying digestive issue linked to the inability to digest certain foods/beverages and/or excess toxic waste/stool building up inside the colon and no longer able to be easily evacuated. The change in stool patterns may also be indicative of referred pain from a urinary tract infection, increasing urine acidity, anatomical changes of the genitourinary tract (i.e,. cystocele) or uterus (i.e., fibroids) which are applying too much pressure on the colon.
If you suddenly find yourself losing or gaining weight without changing your diet or activity level, do take notice. Because our bodies are meant to use the food we consume for energy and burn off the extra calories through our daily activities, we are not naturally designed to experience major fluctuations in our weight, Dr. Bhandari said.
The weight loss/gain can be gradual, happening slowly over the course of weeks and months. You may only begin to take notice when your clothes are no longer fitting just right. This can be normal, especially if you’ve gradually begun eating smaller portions, snacking less, eating earlier in the day, and/or are naturally making healthier low calorie nutrient-dense dietary choices without any considerate effort.
However, during other times, sudden fluctuation in weight can be indicative of an underlying problem linked to your digestive system no longer able to function properly. More specifically, if your stomach, liver and/or colon are in big trouble, they won’t be able to properly digest many proteins and starches, for example. These toxic metabolites will end up hurting brain and nerve cells and hijacking many critical cell functions which, in turn, can trigger serious disease such as cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, or an autoimmune disorder, to name just a few.
An overloaded schedule may be the first thing you blame when you feel tired, but severe tiredness, especially out of the blue or over a long period of time, can be a sign of something more serious.
It can happen slowly, making it difficult to notice, especially for loved ones who are seeing the person on a regular basis, Dr. Bhandari said. When a person is feeling increasingly more tired, they may begin to lose interest in things, become more withdrawn, or only focus on doing the bare minimum. They may increase their food cravings for meat, sugar, caffeine, processed food (i.e., bread, crackers, protein/granola bars, dry cereal) and/or snacking just to give them a little bit more push to carry on.
A gradual onset of fatigue may be linked to poor vascular circulation throughout the body and/or a high level of lymphatic congestion tied to poor clearance of toxins. Possible culprits include liver or kidney disease, cardiovascular disease (CVD), an autoimmune disorder, and/or cancer.
An acute onset of fatigue can be a common symptom of the immune or digestive system in trouble working their hardest trying to compensate for i.e., a major imbalance in the microbiome, underlying nutrient deficiencies (iron, Vitamin B12, folate), a hormonal imbalance, or overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. Fatigue can also sometimes be the only symptom noted for a UTI (urinary tract inflammation/infection), for example
“By itself, shortness of breath doesn’t usually drive people to seek medical attention unless it’s significant,” Dr. Bhandari said. “It can be due to a lack of exercise. But, when we are unusually short of breath going up steps or during daily tasks, such as carrying out the garbage, this could be a serious issue needing attention.
“Mistakenly, people often feel they need another symptom paired with shortness of breath before visiting their doctor, such as chest pain or cough. However, shortness of breath by itself is a symptom that should be addressed. Because it comes on very slowly, allowing you to adjust to it, it is not recognized as a problem that would cause you to see your clinician.”
Shortness of breath could be caused by cardiovascular or lung disease. Those who smoke tobacco or marijuana often ignore shortness of breath because they know it can be directly caused by their smoking habits. And so, we often dismiss symptoms, thinking they’ll just go away.
Pay attention, especially if you also begin to experience other symptoms such as chest pressure/tightness, back or jaw pain, cold/heat intolerance, and/or persistent nausea. These could be signs of a pending heart attack or stroke, the leading cause of death in women.
According to Dr. Bhandari, shortness of breath can often be associated with gastroesophageal reflux (aka., heartburn) where the only symptom experienced noted by the person is an unrelenting cough and/or mild shortness of breath. If these symptoms persist and begin damaging the bronchial tubes and/or lungs, it can increase a person’s risk of developing cancer in the future.
If you are accustomed to not having headaches, and start having them regularly, it may be a sign of something wrong.
“People tend to not seek medical care for headaches until the headaches start to interrupt their daily life,” Dr. Bhandari said.
Headaches in literal terms means the power generator of energy inside the cells called the mitochondria is unable to produce sufficient energy relative to the demand. Some of the most common causes include poor delivery of oxygen and water into cells linked to the blood being too acidic, dehydration, and excess cellular death versus regeneration.
Over 85% of headaches are associated with an underlying food sensitivity. The biggest headache insulters are:
Long-term consumption of many of these key insulters noted above can eventually kill the brain and other nerve cells, and create a full-blown toxic inflammatory reaction in the central and peripheral nervous system. This can become a serious problem, especially since these toxic metabolites may damage cognitive function and vision along with increasing the risk of a brain tumor, seizure, body numbness or weakness which may eventually be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis, ALS, Parkinson’s, or dementia.
Some of the other biggest triggers for headaches include chronic intracellular dehydration, tendency to shallow breath from not being able to fully engage the diaphragm, insufficient daily mental rest linked to minimal shut eye time, chronic sleep deprivation, overuse of electronics causing the brain to become overtired and over wired.
Is lovemaking no longer as enjoyable as it used to be? Pain during sex can be due to a number of issues. One to be aware of is chronic intracellular dehydration causing vaginal dryness commonly noted during shifts in one’s hormonal cycle such as during ovulation, menopause, pregnancy and post childbirth. Long-term excess dryness can lead to skin disorders that cause localized ulcers, cracks, burning, or excess itching which can interfere with intercourse.
Other causes for painful intercourse can be linked to a yeast or urinary tract infection/inflammation (UTI) secondary to a major imbalance in the microflora, or secondary to localized trauma caused from childbirth, an accident, or post-surgery. In other cases, stress or psychological distress can lead to spontaneous tightening of the vaginal wall muscles and prevent adequate vaginal lubrication to occur.
If you are accustomed to being able to hold your bladder for long periods of time, it may suddenly feel strange to have a strong, persistent urge to urinate. This can be attributed to many factors, such as having recently drunk a ton of fluids and causing the bladder to become overfull with the natural sensation to want to evacuate urine as soon as possible. In other instances, it can be caused by an underlying UTI, anatomical changes to the genitourinary tract (i.e., cystocele, fibroids), weakened pelvic floor muscles linked to improper posture and breathing techniques, along with a damaged parasympathetic nervous system/vagus nerve unable to easily control bladder function.
When the urethra, a tube which runs from the bladder through the vagina, is irritated, it can cause a burning sensation when urinating (also called urethritis ~ inflammation of the urethra). This can be a sign of an infection anywhere throughout the genitourinary tract which triggers an intense inflammatory reaction. The acidic urine passing through the urethra may contain damaged red blood cells lining the inner walls of the bladder and urethra which are shed into the urine as bright red blood droplets.
In other cases, urethritis can be due to non-infectious exposure to irritants such as scented soaps, lotions, douching, and spermicides or from localized physical damage to the urethra from vigorous sex, masturbation, or a medical procedures such as catheter insertion.
If you ever thought that you’ve completely emptied your bladder and found yourself still trickling a few more drops of urine thereafter, there may be something wrong. In an acute setting, incomplete bladder emptying can be caused by a UTI, especially if accompanied with cloudy urine and/or bright pink, red, or cola-colored urine indicative of blood in the urine.
In other cases, it may be caused by tiny pebbles of kidney stones passing through the urine, nerve damage to the genitourinary tract, a urethral stricture or anatomical change linked to the pelvic floor leading to its associated dysfunction. The seriousness of the underlying condition is often linked to the persistence of the underlying concern.
If you ever notice your urine has a peculiarly strong smell, the most common cause is dehydration. When you haven’t been drinking enough water relative to your body’s demand, your urine can appear dark yellow and have a foul odor.
Other times, smelly urine can be caused by consuming the top kidney offenders: asparagus, fish, garlic and onions. Asparagus contains asparagusic acid that causes a sulfur-like smell. Fish is full of chemical compounds which kill kidney cells over many years. Onions and garlic overstimulate the nervous system and are difficult for the colon to digest leading to smelling urine and a tired, stressed out gut and brain.
Other causes of smelly urine can be due to sulfa containing medications with the top offenders being:
Certain medical conditions are also associated with foul-smelling urine including an infection in the vagina, urethra, or bladder (i.e, UTI, vaginal candidiasis, sexually transmitted diseases). Whenever there is a major imbalance of the microbiome, especially between beneficial versus pathogenic bacteria inside the gut, it leads to overproduction of toxic (and smelly) methane gas which, in turn, shifts the microbial balance throughout the body. In the genitourinary tract, a major microbial imbalance will lead to poor clearance of toxins from urine, decreased urine pH (increased acidity), and localized irritation which can present as foul-smelly urine, urinary frequency, discomfort, urinary urgency, localized pain, and/or excess vaginal discharge.
Listen to Your Intuition
If you are experiencing any symptoms that do not feel quite right, listen to your intuition. You know your body best and can sense when something is wrong. Remember, seeking care early on can help ensure the best outcome possible. Because serious illness does not go away by itself, the sooner you get treatment, the better your chances are for a positive outcome. So, if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms for way too long which seem to be getting out of control, contact your functional medicine physician.
Dr. Bhandari and her expert team of integrative functional medical practitioners at SF Advanced Health work closely together to better understand the root cause of patients’ ailment. By incorporating each person’s unique constitution and circumstances, we are able to effectively reshift patients’ bodies to optimal functioning and efficiently resolve their acute and chronic concerns. To learn more, contact Advanced Health or call us today 1-415-506-9393.