Dr. Yael Varnado (“Dr. V”) is a physician and medical expert who is passionate about women’s health and preventive care. She is the founder of a non-profit called Get Checked for Life, as well as a women’s sexual health campaign called Live Right at Night. In the spirit of empowering patients, we asked her what questions she thinks women tend to forget to ask at their annual physical exam—and why they’re important.
Question 1. Why are you giving me a blood test, and what will the results tell us?
At your physical you often get a blood test and don’t even think about what the test is checking for and what it’s revealing. When your blood gets tested, your physician is looking for clues as to what is going on inside your body. These clues could prove vital to your health and wellness, but often sound like a foreign language. One general test is your CBC/FBC (your full or complete blood count) that counts red and white blood cells. An abnormal count can reveal disease in your body. Your doctor also will often test for your glucose level, which can reveal diabetes or pre-diabetes. Your cholesterol is also measured during your blood tests. Often we think of cholesterol issues as something that our parents or grandparents deal with, but it’s also something that women at younger ages are dealing with because of their lifestyles. Knowing your cholesterol numbers is the first step to keeping it in check! Another thing your doctor may be checking is your sodium level—this test can help identify an electrolyte imbalance, which could indicate issues with your liver, adrenal glands, brain, kidneys and more.
Getting these tests done regularly is just as important as understanding the results that come with them. Remember to talk to your doctor about your results, what they mean to you and what lifestyle choices you can make to ensure they’re kept in check!
2. What types of vitamins and supplements should I be taking?
We see advertisements and promotions for supplements all the time, but what should you really be taking as a woman? No two women are the same, so be sure you always check with your doctor and your own personal health plan before making these decisions.
In general, however, women should take a multivitamin specifically made for women. Vitamin D is also a great choice because it serves multiple functions including helping with healthy bones and keeping cancer, heart disease and even depression at bay. It helps with your bone health because it helps your body absorb calcium and can help prevent osteoporosis, which is something many women want to keep in check as they grow older.
Depending on your diet and your body’s needs, you may also want to add a calcium supplement because it is key to healthy bones. Your body needs 1,000 mg a day and that glass of milk you may be consuming over breakfast only covers 300 mg. Women over 40 may also want to consider a calcium-magnesium supplement, as they need even more.
Omega-3 is also a key addition in terms of supplements because as women we don’t always get our daily recommended dose (1,000 mg). Finally, assess how much fiber you’re getting in your diet (another big must that many women forget about) and talk to your physician about it. If you aren’t getting enough from your diet you may want to talk to your doctor about adding fiber or a probiotic supplement to your daily regimen.
3. Why does my family’s medical history matter—and what should I do about it?
Decoding your family’s health history is like unlocking the secrets to your own body’s future. We often share everything from genes to lifestyles with our family, and the more you know, the more power you and your doctor have to create a health and wellness plan tailored to you specifically. Your family history tells your doctor what to watch out for, health issues you may be at risk for and tests they may want to run earlier than usual. It helps them be the best possible partner for you as you strive for a healthy and happy future.
One thing I believe every woman should do is interview her mother and father about their family health history—before it’s too late. Your health history can give you clues to everything from how difficult it will be for you to get pregnant to what types of cancer you’re at a higher risk of developing. Don’t be scared: I’m not saying that you are guaranteed to suffer from any health ailments your relatives have dealt with, but knowing them is key to living your best life health-wise. Find out about health issues both sides of your family have dealt with, write down the age and reason your parents and grandparents died, and record it all in a personal health journal, or on your computer.
4. What is the best birth control option for me?
The best form of birth control for you may be different for your sister, mother, best friend and so forth. Know that the worst form of birth control (and sexually transmitted disease protection) is no birth control, and that unless you’re trying actively to get pregnant you should be including some form in your health regimen.
When selecting your form of birth control remember you have several options: pills, condoms, IUD, the shot and more. You should talk to your doctor about all the risks and benefits involved with each option. You should also talk to your partner about what works best for your lifestyle, needs and future plans. For instance, if you’re considering an IUD and you’re married and planning on children in the near future, this may not necessarily be the best option for you. If you’re irresponsible (come on, let’s get honest here) birth control pills may not be the best bet for you. Some women have highly sensitive bodies and may be allergic to most forms of condoms, which may lead you to another choice.
It’s also important to remember that birth control isn’t simply about preventing pregnancy (even if you’re over 40—it happens, ladies), but it’s also about protecting your body from sexually transmitted diseases. STDs are real, prevalent and can impact your body forever. You should be thinking about these things before you even think about having sex. Make choices that are best for you, that make you feel safe and happy and that are easy to include in your daily (or monthly) routine.
5. I’m feeling anxious and/or blue lately. Is this normal? Can you help me?
YES! First, remember that everyone is “normal”—that’s a given. That said, if you’re not feeling emotionally or mentally the same as you have in the past, or if feelings of blues and anxiety are noticeable enough to give you pause, speak to your doctor as soon as possible.
There are several factors that can cause these feelings—ranging from your environment, your workplace, your sleeping and eating habits, and all that we take on as women on a daily basis. The first step in eliminating these feeling is identifying where they’re coming from.
After you identify the sources of these feelings, you can begin to treat them. And don’t worry: Medicine isn’t always the only way! Sometimes just changing our behaviors, triggers and habits can do the trick. The key is to not depend on yourself to do this on your own. Your doctor is there to help make you healthy inside and out, and your mental health is just as important as your physical health!
Dr. Yael “Dr. V” Varnado is a Cornell-educated physician and a medical expert, known for her ability to deliver straight, relatable and relevant information on timely topics. Dr. V is the founder of Get Checked for Life, a non-profit that assists members of underserved communities, improving their quality of life by educating and giving them access to the necessary tools and medical resources. She is also the creator of the Live Right at Night Campaign, focusing on women’s sexual and physical health and safety between the hours of 5 p.m. and 9 a.m. Tweet her at @AskDrV.