I learned a lot more about women’s health over the past year for two unexpected reasons: 1) a medical emergency that resulted in deeper understanding of female reproductive anatomy, and 2) being drawn to a book titled The XX Brain by Lisa Moscani, PhD. My takeaways from both were so unexpected and enlightening that I started bringing up these newfound facts in conversation with friends, family members, and my book club circle. I was surprised to find that these very basic facts about our bodies and health aren’t common knowledge.
So, here I am today as a wellness coach and fitness professional trying to shed light on some startling facts about women’s health. Bear with me if these seem unrelated to your personal situation at the moment…you never know when they might become relevant for you or a woman you know. Knowledge is power and women are worthy!
Reproductive Organs & Health
Fact 1: Removal of a single fallopian tube only reduces fertility by about 10%, not 50% as many women assume. (I told you this was random stuff.) But this is great news for those of us women with a single tube! I was surprised to learn this fact after losing one of my tubes last year. It gave me tremendous hope.
Fact 2: The ovaries sit closer together, somewhat behind the uterus, not far apart as shown in textbooks and anatomy diagrams. It’s odd to me that women are taught so little about their reproductive organs! We’re seldom taught how they really work sexually despite the basic education in sex ed. class, and conceiving a baby doesn’t seem like complicated stuff until a woman starts meaningfully tracking her cycle and figuring out peak fertility signs and symptoms. And lo and behold – now I realize that we don’t even really know what we look like “down there” without a mirror for the outside or a kind doctor explaining the intricacies of all the stuff on the inside. (Did you know your uterus has 3 layers?! My point exactly!)
Fact 3: Fallopian tubes are flexible and mobile. You heard me right – those skinny little suckers can move! This is why you can still get pregnant while having only one tube, assuming it’s healthy and undamaged. A single fallopian tube figures out how to intelligently move to the ovulating ovary, even if it’s on the opposite side, to suck up or “catch” the egg that is released. The next month, it will move to the opposite side in preparation for the next ovulation cycle.
This. Absolutely. Boggles. My. Mind.
Women are complicated and magnificent. Thanks to this phenomenon, I’m currently pregnant with a baby girl whose egg came from my ovary on the side *without* the fallopian tube. I’m still in shock.
Fact 4: Most aggressive forms of ovarian cancer start in the fallopian tubes, not the ovary itself. This is really eye-opening information to me. I hadn’t thought much about ovarian cancer and internal female reproductive anatomy until a year ago when my world tilted. Now, I’m processing the fact that my paternal great-grandmother died from ovarian cancer. I believe that the reason ovarian cancer is so deadly is because of its frequent origin in the fallopian tubes. You see, the tubes are wide open to the abdominal cavity on one end, meaning that cancer originating in the tubes can quickly and easily spread to any number of internal organs.
When I went to a fertility clinic to check if my remaining fallopian tube was healthy, the doctor did a hysterosalpingogram (HSG) procedure where dye was injected through my uterus up and into my fallopian tube to check for obstructions. I saw the thin line of ink on the screen and was told that was my tube. But then I also saw a fanning out of the dye as though it were spilling into open space. The doctor explained that’s exactly what it was doing – it was spilling from the open side of my tube into my abdomen (the doctor called this a “blushing effect” and sign of a healthy tube). While this was encouraging at the time, I must consider my family history of ovarian cancer and its risks for me. Which leads me to the decision to have my remaining tube removed after this pregnancy because research shows…(see fact 5)
Fact 5: Removal of fallopian tubes can reduce ovarian cancer risk by over 40%. Ovarian cancer has been shown to have a genetic component in some cases and is worth discussing with a genetic counselor if your family has a history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer. If you’re a women intrigued by genetic testing then this is a good thing to check genetic risk for too, even in the absence of a family history.
Hormones & Brain Health
Fact 1: Did you know that the X chromosome is much larger than the Y chromosome and contains over 1000 more genes? And women have two X chromosomes at that! That’s a lot of genetic power, if you ask me. According to The XX Brain these genes primarily support hormone production and brain activity.
Fact 2: Men’s brains produce more serotonin (mood, sleep, appetite, “feel good” hormone) whereas women’s brains produce more dopamine (drive and reward-motivated behavior). Does this make a light bulb go off in anyone else’s mind? This fact produces such an “aha!” moment for me. It makes so much sense.
My husband sleeps like a log, has a fairly level mood every day, and seems generally content to watch football on the tv while playing a mindless video game on his phone. My day is much different. Sleep is easily thrown off by hormones, my mood is much more subject to fluctuations, and some evenings I battle feeling “unproductive” if I’m being a zoned-out couch potato. I wonder what life would feel like as a man for just one day…but then I remember that women have more brain power, so I quickly forget the notion 😉
Fact 3: Women’s Alzheimer’s risk is an emerging health crisis. According to Lisa Moscani, “two out of every three Alzheimer’s patients are women” and “a 45 year old woman has a one in five chance of developing Alzheimer’s during her remaining life.”
Does this startle anyone else? I’m mind blown and saddened by these statistics but also encouraged from reading The XX Brain because it helps dive into preventive actions, risk assessments and more, so that women can be proactive about their health.
Fact 4: Pregnancy-related gestational diabetes and preeclampsia may predispose a woman to develop heart disease around the time of menopause. This was a bit of a side note in Moscani’s book but one that really jumped off the page to me (page 49, for those interested). According to studies, women who experience gestational diabetes during pregnancy have a 26% higher risk of heart issues after menopause. Women with former preeclampsia are at a 31% elevated risk. If you suffered from one of these two prenatal health conditions it’s worth filing this note away for the future so that you can speak to a trusted medical professional about managing menopause and taking actions to boost and monitor heart health (good news – you can start ALL of these things well before menopause).
Fact 5: Removing a woman’s ovaries (or just one) before menopause can increase her risk of dementia by up to 70% (page 53, The XX Brian). If you’ve had one or both of your ovaries removed for medical reasons then please consider reading The XX Brain to learn what you can do about Alzheimer’s prevention. I was very alarmed by this data and hope that women will spread the word and get the preventative help they deserve.
Fact 6: While some aspects of menopause are out of our control, we have the ability to adapt our lifestyle behaviors before and during the process to help ease the intensity of the fall in estrogen. Although I’m still somewhere in my “fertile years” I know that I will inevitably hit menopause one day. For the longest time I thought menopause was just something that “happened” to you, like you step unexpectedly onto a roller coaster with no way off until it stops. Thank goodness this isn’t entirely the case! There are steps you can take to help your body manage the intense downshift in estrogen and the brain/body’s process of adapting to functioning on far less of it.
Thanks for hanging in with me and diving into the random, unexpected world of women’s health!
Yours in health and wellness,