This chapter deals with the health risks that many commonly eaten foods in our society pose for women (and men also). The list of hazardous foods may surprise you because it includes not only processed "junk food," but also foods that are considered staples of the American diet. Many women unwittingly prescribe to a diet that worsens their reproductive health as well as their health in general.
The wrong foods can affect health adversely in many ways. They can be difficult to digest, contain nutrients that stress the body, or even cause toxic reactions within the body.
The process of digestion itself takes much energy. Digestion must occur before the body can extract energy from the foods you eat. Proteins must be broken down into amino acids, complex carbohydrates into simple sugars, and fats into fatty acids. For these breakdowns to occur, food is chemically acted upon by stomach acid, hormones, pancreatic enzymes, and fat emulsifiers, as well as by the mechanical process that propels food through the entire length of the digestive tract. Once the food is broken down, it must be absorbed from the digestive tract and taken into the blood. From there, the food particles circulate to cells throughout the body. At the cellular level, the energy contained in the food is finally captured to fuel the body's many chemical and physiological reactions.
This entire process requires a great deal of work. The body needs an abundance of reserve energy to produce the chemicals involved in the digestive process. Ideally, foods should be easy to digest, yet nutrient-rich, so that they can provide the body with needed energy.
Unfortunately, many of the most commonly eaten foods in our society are hard to digest. These include foods that are high in saturated fats, sugars, and animal protein. The long list includes pizza, steak, bacon, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, French fries, doughnuts, ice cream, chocolate, and many other processed and high stress foods. The body must work very hard to digest a typical meal of thick steak, French fries, buttered bread, wine, and a chocolate dessert. This meal is laden with saturated fats, red meat protein, and sugar. Upon finishing it, a woman will feel overly full and more tired than before she started eating. In contrast, a light meal of bean soup, mixed green salad, and baked potato is filled with vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and easy to digest vegetable based protein. This meal is also low in fat and sugar. It is much more likely to enable that woman to leave the table feeling energized and comfortable.
Other foods stress the body through their toxicity. There are many ways a food can increase fatigue. Some foods have a toxic effect that damages the cells and affects their ability to function. One example is alcohol, which is particularly toxic to the liver, brain, and nervous system. Alcohol and sugar promote the growth of pathological organisms like candida, which can worsen fatigue. Many food additives and preservatives can cause an allergic or toxic reaction in susceptible women. Other foods, such as saturated fats, margarine, caffeine, salt, and food additives, will be discussed in the following sections of this chapter for their adverse affects on health.
Caffeine containing foods include coffee, black tea, cola drinks, cocoa, and chocolate. These foods are used almost universally in our culture both as stimulants and emotional "treats." Caffeine belongs to a class of chemicals called methylxanthines, which have a drug like stimulant effect on the body. In fact, caffeine-containing foods are the most commonly used legal drugs (along with alcohol) in Western societies. For thousands of years, people have used caffeine in rituals and ceremonies. It was also chewed in plant form or used in beverages as a mild daily stimulant. Traditional societies today continue to use caffeine containing plants like mate or kola nuts for their stimulatory effects.
In the United States, many of us are unknowingly raised on caffeine containing foods from our childhood. Hot chocolate is a favorite drink of children, especially during the winter months. Teenagers drink copious amounts of colas and other caffeine containing carbonated drinks, and most children name chocolate as their preferred sweet. Among adults, coffee use is ubiquitous, with Americans consuming as much as ten pounds of coffee per year. Even more staggering is the statistic that Americans consume a half billion cups of coffee per day (or about two cups per person each day). These figures have decreased by 50 percent over the past forty years when coffee consumption was at its peak. A single cup of coffee contains about 100 mg of caffeine, enough to create a mild stimulatory effect.
Black tea and green tea contain about half the amount of caffeine that coffee does (about 50 mg per cup). However, these teas also contain theophylline and theobromine, other members of the methylxanthine family which have marked effects on the body. Theophylline is used as a medication to aid breathing in asthmatics, while theobromine has stimulatory effects on the body. Both tea and coffee contain tannic acid, which can irritate the intestinal mucosa. Theobromine is also found in the cocoa bean, the natural source of chocolate and cocoa powder used in cooking. Other plant sources of caffeine include mate, kola nuts, and the guarana plant.
Many soft drinks like Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper, and Jolt, are high in caffeine. Numerous over the counter medications also contain caffeine as an active ingredient. Manufacturers of cold remedies like Dristan use it for its stimulatory effect to help counteract the drowsiness caused by antihistamines. It is a main ingredient in over the counter drugs like No-Doz because of its ability to increase wakefulness and alertness. It is also used in many pain relief and menstrual relief formulas such as Midol, Excedrin, and Anacin.
As a central nervous system stimulant, caffeine increases brain activity when taken in doses of 50 to 100 mg or more per day. This is the amount found in one cup of coffee or black tea. When used on an occasional basis, a cup of coffee can have a pleasantly stimulating effect. However, many people are addicted to the jolt of energy that caffeine provides and find that they need to take it in large amounts. Many women must consume significantly more caffeine (two to three cups or even as many as ten cups per day) to receive the pick-me-up they need to combat drowsiness and perform optimally during the day. Besides increasing alertness, caffeine has other physiological effects. It speeds up metabolism, allowing calories to be burned more efficiently. It stimulates the cardiovascular system, increasing the heart rate, respiratory rate, and elevating blood pressure. It lowers the blood sugar level, increasing the appetite and the craving for sweets. It also stimulates adrenal function, causing an outpouring of adrenal hormones which make the blood sugar level subsequently rise again. Caffeine also has a diuretic and laxative effect, increasing elimination.
Unfortunately, there are many negatives to the use of caffeinated beverages, which over time outweigh the initial benefits. Caffeine can cause a host of emotional and physical symptoms that can be quite debilitating. Caffeine is an addictive chemical, so many women find that they need increasingly larger amounts to keep their energy up. When caffeine use is initially discontinued, people tend to feel very fatigued. Women who suffer from PMS or menopause may find that psychological symptoms that can occur due to hormonal imbalance or deficiency such as anxiety, irritability, and mood swings are worsened with caffeine intake. In one study reported in the American Journal of Public Health, 216 female college students were questioned as to the severity of their PMS symptoms in relationship to their caffeine intake. Interestingly, only 16 percent of the women who used no caffeine at all reported suffering from severe PMS symptoms. In contrast, 60 percent of those women drinking between 4.5 to 15 cups of caffeinated beverages per day reported severe symptoms. This fourfold difference in frequency of symptoms is quite significant.
For women with anxiety and panic episodes due to emotional triggers, caffeine can aggravate the frequency and severity of their episodes. Caffeine taken in excess (more than four or five cups per day) can dramatically increase anxiety, irritability, and mood swings. Even small amounts can make susceptible women jittery. After the initial jolt, women with anxiety symptoms find that caffeine intake makes them more tired.
Caffeine triggers anxiety and panic symptoms because it directly stimulates arousal mechanisms in the body. It raises the brain's level of nor-epinephrine, a neurotransmitter that increases alertness. It also triggers sympathetic nervous system activity, which causes fight or flight responses, such as increased pulse, breathing rate, and muscle tension. Thus, caffeine intake triggers the physiological responses typical of anxiety states. In addition, caffeine stimulates the release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands, further intensifying nervousness and jitteriness. By overstimulating the adrenals, chronic use of caffeine actually weakens them. Over time, this can lead to persistent fatigue and tiredness.
Besides causing anxiety symptoms, caffeine has a diuretic effect and speeds elimination of many minerals and vitamins that are essential to health during the menopausal years. Loss of potassium, zinc, magnesium, vitamin B, and vitamin C are accelerated with caffeine intake. Many of these nutrients, such as B-complex vitamins and magnesium, are needed for optimal functioning of the chemical reactions that convert food to usable energy.
Deficiency of these nutrients increases anxiety, mood swings, and fatigue. Depletion of B-complex vitamins through caffeine use also interferes with carbohydrate metabolism and healthy liver function, which help to regulate the blood sugar as well as estrogen levels. An imbalance in estrogen and progesterone can increase anxiety and mood swings in women with symptoms of PMS or menopause. Many menopausal women also complain that caffeine increases the frequency of hot flashes.
Coffee also reduces the absorption of iron and calcium from food and supplemental sources, particularly when taken at mealtimes. This is obviously of concern to women who want to prevent osteoporosis and iron deficiency anemia.
Caffeine use has also been linked to a worsening of nodularity and tenderness in women with benign breast disease. Studies published in both the Journal of the American Medical Association and Surgery reported decrease in breast pain as well as size of breast lumps for women when they eliminate caffeine from their diets. Many of my patients have reported a decrease in breast symptoms when discontinuing caffeine use. Women with frequent bladder infections or irritability and those suffering from interstitial cystitis, a debilitating chronic bladder disease, may also benefit from caffeine elimination.
Postmenopausal women who are at high risk of heart attacks and strokes due to their familial tendency or blood fat profiles may want to avoid caffeine use. Caffeine increases blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides; both are risk factors for heart attacks. In addition, caffeine raises the blood pressure. High blood pressure, or hypertension, becomes increasingly prevalent with age and also is a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes. Caffeine also causes the heart to beat faster and increases the excitability of the system that conducts electrical impulses through the heart. This can lead to rapid and irregular heartbeat in susceptible women.
Caffeine use directly affects hydrochloric acid secretion in the stomach. Specifically, caffeine increases acid production, which is a risk factor for gastritis and peptic ulcer disease. If you are prone to heartburn or either of these medical conditions, you should eliminate all caffeinated beverages for symptom relief. Besides triggering acid production, caffeine also stimulates peristalsis of the gastrointestinal tract. This has a laxative effect, producing more frequent bowel movements and even diarrhea in susceptible women. Too loose bowel movements can affect the loss of essential nutrients like B vitamins and minerals that are seen with the frequent use of caffeine.