Healing Hearts, Honoring My Mother

Whether it be a chocolate heart, a broken heart, or someone having your heart, Valentine’s Day has the word heart on all of our lips. While the clichés can be cute or sickening, depending on your general outlook of the holiday, the word heart has become an identity for our personality in reference to our emotions.

Very few people will first think of the pump-like organ that regulates blood circulation from its home in our chests. Even fewer people give thought to the health of that organ, which is unfortunate since 1 in 4 deaths is caused by heart disease, making it the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. To refocus our awareness of the true definition of the word, February is American Heart Month.


You can be proactive about your heart health — and that of those you love.


There are different kinds of heart disease, which obviously means that there are different causes. While cardiovascular disease can refer to different heart or blood vessel problems, the definition is widely used in reference to damage done by a buildup of fatty plaques in your arteries. As that buildup thickens, the walls of the arteries harden, which obstructs blood from being distributed to your organs.

This process is called atherosclerosis, but we know it as coronary artery disease. While some heart conditions can be due to heart defects that you may have been born with, atherosclerosis is the most common cause of cardiovascular disease and is caused predominantly by correctable problems: obesity, lack of exercise, an unhealthy diet, and smoking. Continue reading

One Simple Kit

A community health worker teaches how to make cloth pads. Photo: Nyaya Health

A community health worker teaches how to make cloth pads. Photo: Nyaya Health

Last week, I texted a friend of mine and told her: I have a hard choice before me. When she asked what that was, I smiled as I replied: I must choose between replenishing the MAC mascara that I just ran out of and buying the new Harry Potter book. We both laughed. But really, even as a single mom who falls beneath the poverty level, this was my choice of the day.

I have known hard times. I have lived in my car with my two dogs and I have had to volunteer my time cleaning my son’s school to ensure that he gets an education because I couldn’t afford the monthly tuition. I have taken hits by the ones I love, both physical and metaphorical, and I have had my innocence stolen from me by a boy I hardly knew.


One simple kit is combating poverty, hunger, and gender inequality.


Yet somewhere across a sea, a young girl sits in her room, blood gushing from her for reasons unbeknownst to her. Fear brings tears to her eyes as she struggles to understand why God has cursed her. That is what her mother has taught her. That if such a thing occurs, it is a curse from her creator for being a filthy creature. A girl her age tells her that she has contracted a disease, something she couldn’t remember the three letters to reference, but she knew was deadly.

In a rural region in southern Malawi, a girl who has had her first period may be expected to undergo a “sexual cleansing” ritual, in which she is made to have unprotected sex with a man called a hyena — a risky proposition in a country in which nearly 1 in 10 adults has HIV. Her choice to deny such an offer could result in her entire family being stricken ill or even dead — at least that is what she is told. Continue reading

Teen Talk: What Is Kissing Disease?

kissing diseaseIf you’re a total dork like me, you might have some plush microbes hanging out on your desk or in your bedroom. The one that represents Epstein-Barr virus is especially adorable (look to your right and try not to coo in delight!). I just want to grab it, cuddle up to it, and fall asleep in its pillowy purple-pink embrace.

In reality, Epstein-Barr virus, or EBV for short, is not the most warm-and-fuzzy microbe of the bunch. I’d way rather have a cold. Why? Because EBV causes mono, which is more whimsically known as the kissing disease. And, despite that cute moniker, kissing disease can be most unpleasant.


Take it from one mono survivor: “Mono stinks!”


First, an explanation of why mono is also called the kissing disease. Merely being in the presence of someone with mono won’t put you at risk, even if you’re both in the same room — you need to be actively swapping spit with them to be exposed to the virus. Kissing is probably the most famous way for two people to exchange saliva, but sharing cups, eating utensils, or toothbrushes can do it, too. After exposure to the virus, symptoms could show up in 4 to 6 weeks.

Second, an explanation of why mono can be so terrible. While not all teenagers and young adults who are infected with EBV will develop symptoms, those who do probably won’t enjoy the experience. Symptoms include extreme fatigue, head and body aches, sore throat, and fever. It’s bad enough to have those symptoms for a few days, but mono might seem to go on and on with no end in sight. Most people are better in 2 to 4 weeks, but even then it could take another few weeks to get back to 100 percent. And some unlucky people can experience these symptoms for six months or even longer! In addition to these nasty symptoms, serious complications are possible. Continue reading

National Girls and Women in Sports Day: Creating an Even Playing Field for All Athletes

soccerFrom tennis to mixed martial arts, women excelled across a broad spectrum of athletic events in 2015. They graced Sports Illustrated covers and ESPN highlight reels, achieving excellence in a world still dominated by testosterone. Yet even though 44 years have passed since President Nixon signed Title IX in 1972, sexism continues to rear its ugly head in competitive athletics. Even women who reach the pinnacles of success in their fields face constant battles against subtle but pervasive gender inequality.


Female athletes still have a long way to travel on the road toward total parity with men.


As 2016 ushers in another year of nail-biting finishes, heart-wrenching losses, and championship victories, it’s time to celebrate the women who made 2015 a remarkable year in sports and reflect on the work that still remains on the road to gender equality. On February 3, the Women’s Sports Foundation will do just that by hosting the 30th annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day in Washington, D.C. The event will both celebrate the progress that female athletes have made over the last four decades and promote ways to advance women’s status in the world of sports.

It would be impossible to discuss athletic accomplishments from 2015 without recognizing the ladies of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, who, in a single game, gave the United States more fútbol glory than the men’s team has offered in more than 100 years of existence. What follows is a commentary on how the team has maintained its tradition of excellence in the face of the misogyny that remains heavily embedded in competitive sports. Continue reading

What Do We Know About Herbal Remedies and Menstrual Cramps? (Spoiler Alert: Not Much.)

herbalWhen I was entering adulthood and suffering from severe menstrual cramps, I suffered without relief for far too long. And I am certainly not alone in this experience. The most common gynecological disorder is dysmenorrhea — painful menstrual cramps — which strikes an estimated 90 percent of reproductive-age females. Furthermore, around 40 percent of American women use some form of complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM. “CAM” is a catchall for approaches to health care that fall outside of the mainstream. Given the popularity of CAM and the ubiquity of dysmenorrhea, it was no surprise that I experienced painful cramps, nor was it shocking that I tried a few herbal remedies, which are a type of CAM.


“Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean safe or effective, so be critical.


During my second year of college, at the age of 19, a friend recommended a couple of herbal remedies to add to my cramp-fighting arsenal. I tried them, but it was difficult to know if they really worked. My pain varied so wildly cycle to cycle that I had no way of knowing if I was just having a “good month” when I initially tried these products. Although I thought they worked at first, after I had accumulated more menstrual cycles under my belt, I started to wonder if my cramps were really any less painful. On average, I still seemed to be missing just as much school and work as before — but I wasn’t sure.

The problem was that I never collected any before-and-after data — I didn’t spend years ranking the severity and duration of my cramps, or keeping track of the hours spent in bed away from school, work, or other obligations. Furthermore, my initial sense of optimism could have colored my perceptions. Since we can be tricked by our own expectations and biases, it is important to have access to quality evidence — gathered in large, methodologically powerful studies.

Raspberry leaf tea was the first herbal remedy I tried. It tasted OK, and the ritualistic nature of drinking a hot beverage from a steaming mug was soothing. But is there any actual evidence that raspberry leaf can help relieve the pain of dysmenorrhea? Although it’s been used therapeutically since at least the 1500s, the only human studies I can find for any gynecological condition examine its use during pregnancy or labor — not for treating menstrual cramps. The only claims for raspberry leaf’s efficacy in treating cramps come from biased sources, like the manufacturers themselves. It seems the tea I drank during my late teen years had word of mouth and marketing going for it, but not much else. Continue reading

PCOS: Erasing the Stigma

two womenUntil I encountered health-related issues of my very own, I had never heard of PCOS. There are no PSAs, no health class curricula, and it is not uncommon for many physicians to be unfamiliar with the seemingly unrelated symptoms that can be a detriment to the life of a woman who is affected.

Irregular menstrual cycles, weight gain, sluggishness, thinning hair, depression, acne, infertility, and sometimes (but not always) cysts on the ovaries are what a woman with PCOS may have to battle on a daily basis. Not only must a woman endure the physical effects of this disorder, but also the psychological effects that come with these changes. To be clear, that is by no means a comprehensive list of symptoms.

This is polycystic ovarian syndrome, and it affects more than 5 million women in the United States alone. Continue reading

It’s August: A Time to Be Aware of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases

Image: Kona Gallagher

There are many simple things we can do to protect our children. Image: Kona Gallagher

August is National Immunization Awareness Month. The importance of vaccination is becoming a bigger issue every year, as 2014 has seen the highest number of measles cases reported since 2000. That is scary.

Too many people think that diseases like measles, mumps, whooping cough, and chickenpox are “normal childhood illnesses,” and that their kid’s immune system is strong enough to fight off these diseases. Too many people have forgotten what it was like before vaccines were commonplace. Too many people don’t stop to think about the long-term consequences of not vaccinating. Not just for them, but for those around them. Even for people they have never met.


When people tell me measles isn’t a big deal, I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach.


I am one of those people you have never met.

My story starts before I was even born. My older brother was given the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine. He was one of the small percentage of recipients that had a bad reaction. So when I was born, they skipped giving it to me. Not to worry, herd immunity would protect me — at least that’s what my doctor said.  Continue reading