Before you blame your chronic headaches on stress or chalk up your constant colds to a weak immune system, you may want to examine your diet. Many women think that pain or other symptoms, like mood swings and hair loss, are the result of a serious medical condition, when something far more simple is the cause: their eating habits, says Gail Frank, R.D., Dr.P.H., a professor of nutrition at California State University, Long Beach, and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Its important to remember that everything you consume will affect your body, from your skin to your digestive system.
Thats not to say symptoms like stomach cramps or depression don't warrant a doctors visit. But before you schedule one, youll want to take an inventory of what you've been eating or not eating and consider making an appointment with a dietitian too. (For a recommendation, visit eatright.org.) On the following pages, top medical and nutrition experts point out the links between six common problems and poor dietary habits, and tell you how to get your diet and your health back on track.
Problem: Weakness, fatigue
Possible cause: A low-calorie diet. Dipping below your daily calorie needs (more on that later) is a major health no-no. Your body uses food as fuel, Frank explains. If you're not eating enough, your system slows down and begins to burn muscle tissue for energy, which is a large part of why you may feel weak, tired or lightheaded. Experts suggest consuming 1,800-2,400 calories a day, depending on your height, weight and activity level.
Cure: Calculate your individual daily calorie needs. If you're trying to lose weight, talk to a dietitian about your eating habits, Frank advises. But keep in mind that no matter how much weight you want to lose, you should never drop below 1,200 calories a day.
When to see a doctor: If you start eating more but still have a hard time performing everyday activities, such as walking or concentrating. You could have a virus such as Epstein-Barr or mononucleosis, or another serious condition such as depression.
Problem: Mood swings, short-term depression, increased appetite
Possible cause: A high-protein, low-carb diet. Consuming fewer than 50 grams of carbs a day can lead to a decrease in serotonin, the brain chemical that regulates both mood and appetite, according to two studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. A dip in serotonin means that youre more vulnerable to mood swings and even a depressed mood and that you may not experience a full feeling after eating, explains Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., MIT scientist and a co-author of both studies. On the other hand, carbohydrates help stimulate serotonin production. After you eat them, your mood improves and you feel sated. If that isn't reason enough to jump off the low-carb wagon, a study from RVA University in Copenhagen, Denmark, shows that people on low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets report more muscle cramps, weakness and diarrhea than individuals on lowfat diets.
Cure: To keep your blood sugar stable, preventing crashes that lead to mood swings and shakiness, eat a diet thats rich in complex carbohydrates (aim for at least five servings a day from sources like whole-grain pasta, brown rice and vegetables) as well as protein and unsaturated fats (found in fish, olive oil and nuts).
When to see a doctor: If binge eating, mood swings or depression lasts more than two weeks, see a physician and/or psychologist, who can determine whether you have a more serious condition.
Possible cause: Trigger foods. Headaches believed to be caused by swelling blood vessels in the head can be triggered by alcohol, caffeinated beverages, cheese, deli meats, chocolate, nuts, foods with MSG and even bananas, says David Buchholz, M.D., associate professor of neurology at Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University and author of Heal Your Headache (Workman, 2002). Some people [react] to chemicals in certain foods, he explains. For example, tyramine [found in red wine and aged cheese] is a common irritant.
Cure: Buchholz suggests that when a headache strikes, write down everything you've eaten that day. If your list contains one of the foods mentioned above, avoid eating it for several weeks. Then, slowly reintroduce it; if you eat or drink it again and your headache returns, you've found your culprit.
When to see a doctor: If your headache is so painful and sudden that you can't function normally. Keep in mind that some people suffer from chronic headaches often called migraines for no apparent reason. A headache specialist can help determine the best course of treatment.
IS THAT NORMAL? Embarrassing health questions, answered
Problem: Digestive troubles
Possible cause: Not consuming enough fiber, or eating foods you can't tolerate. Women often blame gastrointestinal problems like pain, diarrhea and constipation on a sensitive stomach, says Susan Lucak, M.D., a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City. More often than not, their diet lacks fiber, which cleanses the system and regulates bowel movements. Many women may not realize their stomach problems are the result of an intolerance, either to wheat or, more commonly, dairy: Twenty-three percent of Americans can't digest lactose, the sugar found in milk. When they consume dairy products, they may experience bloating, gas or diarrhea, Lucak says.
Cure: Pay attention to whether there's a link between certain foods you eat and your symptoms, and if there is, make changes to your diet. Aim for 25-35 grams of fiber a day, to keep you regular. Good sources include whole-wheat breads and cereals, beans and vegetables.
When to see a doctor: If you experience severe stomach pain or vomiting, or if any symptom such as constipation or diarrhea lasts more than three days and/or is accompanied by weight loss or gain, you could have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or celiac disease, a disorder in which the lining of the small intestine becomes inflamed from foods that contain gluten, such as bread and other wheat products.
Problem: Hair loss
Possible cause: A diet too low in calories, protein, iron or vitamins A and C. If you're not eating right, your locks will show it. Hair is made of protein, which your body produces when you're healthy and following a balanced diet, says Megan Majernik, R.D., a clinical dietitian at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Chicago. But consuming too few calories or simply skimping on protein, iron and vitamins, especially A and C, which are crucial for cell growth, means your system wont have the energy and nutrients it needs to create hair.
Cure: To keep your hair healthy and strong, be sure youre eating enough calories. Also, aim for 700 micrograms of vitamin A a day (good sources include leafy green vegetables like spinach, as well as eggs and dairy products) and 65 milligrams of vitamin C daily (citrus fruits like tangerines, strawberries and red bell peppers provide a good dose).
When to see a doctor: If your hair falls out rapidly or in clumps. You could have a thyroid condition; both hypothyroidism (when the body produces too little thyroid hormone) and hyperthyroidism (when the body produces too much) can be culprits. Studies have shown that consuming too much vitamin A, although rare, can also lead to hair loss. In addition, sudden physical trauma including extreme nutritional changes can cause your hair follicles to release telogen hairs, those that are in the resting stage of the growth cycle.
HEALTHY HAIR: Top 8 foods for luminous hair
Problem: PMS (Premenstrual syndrome)
Possible cause: Too much sodium, sugar or caffeine, or too little fiber. As tempting as it is, chowing down on potato chips and espresso ice cream before your period can exacerbate and even cause PMS symptoms. Specifically, sodium can cause bloating, while caffeine and sugar may induce mood swings. Lack of fiber may also be behind your constipation or diarrhea that often occur before your period, says Diana Taylor, R.N., Ph.D., in Taking Back the Month: A Personalized Solution for Managing PMS and Enhancing Your Health (Perigee, 2003). Excessive sugar is particularly problematic, because it sends your blood sugar soaring, only to come crashing down an hour later, Frank agrees. Thats when you become ravenous and, often, cranky.
Cure: To help combat PMS, consume 25-35 grams of fiber daily, try to limit yourself to one caffeinated beverage a day and keep your daily sodium intake below 1,500 milligrams. No more than 25 percent of your total calories should come from added sugars that are found in junk food. You may also want to up your calcium intake to at least 1,000 grams a day; several studies, including one recently published in the Journal of American College of Nutrition, report that calcium from supplements or food may help ease PMS symptoms.
When to see a doctor: If your mood swings become extreme and are accompanied by depression or feelings of suicide, you may be suffering from premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a more severe form of PMS thats treatable with medication. You should also contact your gynecologist or physician if symptoms like headaches or cramps render you unable to function normally.