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WomanOf the Month9-04: Rallie McAllister

What###s the number one health issue for women? "Women are overworked and overwhelmed," says WomanOf the Month Rallie McAllister, MD. She is the author of Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom###s Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim and The Busy Couple###s Guide to Great Sex. She also writes a weekly nationally syndicated column called "Your Health by Dr. Rallie McAllister" that reaches 1 million readers, she practices medicine part-time, and is a mother of three. She prides herself on distilling medical information into plain English for her patients and audiences, and her passion for her profession remains strong even after years as a solo practitioner, on call nearly 24-7. She only recently ceased practicing medicine full-time when her family moved.

"Whether or not they have a spouse, women get up, get the children ready in many cases, go to work, and when they get home the second shift starts when they step in the door. The work they do after they have clocked out often is harder than what they do at their jobs. We know how stress affects the immune system and happiness. It makes us more likely to get illnesses and infections."

Many women fear breast cancer as their greatest health risk. But Dr. McAllister points out that while 1 in 25 women will die of breast cancer, 1 in 2 women will die of cardiovascular disease. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Cancer Society statistics, annually about 40,000 women lose their lives to breast cancer, while 373,286 lose their lives to heart disease.

What can women do to reduce stress and enhance their health? For starters, set priorities, advises Dr. McAllister. "Learn to say no. Ask, Is this the right thing, right now? If not, then it doesn###t need to be done. Women need to recognize that they don###t have to do everything."

Dr. McAllister grew up in the Appalachian mountains on her family###s horse farm where a strong work ethic prevailed. "I routinely got up at 4:30 to do chores before going to school and I was raised to appreciate the value of hard work," she says. "It was a curse and a blessing-I was able to get things done, but I###m still trying to learn to relax!"

She earned her undergraduate degree in Animal Science from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and then completed two masters degrees-one in public health and one in environmental health. These sparked her interest in human health and her entry to medical school at East Tennessee State University where she specialized in family medicine.

McAllister rates obesity as the second greatest health risk for women (as it is for 60% of all Americans). "Women are too busy taking care of everybody and everything besides themselves," she says. "There is a stereotype that the obese person is a nonproductive person. That is absolutely untrue. The women who I know who are overweight are that way because they don###t take time to take care of themselves. Obesity contributes to heart disease, diabetes, and other factors leading to premature death.

"We are killing ourselves by not taking time to relax, eat nutritious food and exercise. Women are notorious for putting themselves last on the list. It doesn###t teach our kids anything about self-respect or self-esteem.

"I was a single parent at one point and I know how it is-you are on survival mode and things like exercise and eating properly seem like luxuries. But even a tiny change in your daily routine adds up. You have to tell yourself you are worth it. Take the stairs, choose fruit over cookies. It all counts."

Aging is the third greatest health issue for women, says Dr. McAllister. "We now have the potential to live to 100, and whether you are 22 or 72 on that continuum, you have the potential to influence your quality of life. This is an investment in your future well-being. Invest in your bone health with calcium. Invest in heart health by eating foods low in cholesterol and fats, invest in overall health by exercising, consuming alcohol in moderation, eating fruits and vegetables and not smoking. The sum of your choices will determine your health in 10, 20 and 30 years."

Sex can also fall by the wayside as women rush to meet the demands of their busy lives. About one-third of women report experiencing a low libido, according to Dr. McAllister. She wrote The Busy Couple###s Guide to Great Sex to help both women and men understand the different attitudes they bring to intimacy. "For many busy women I interviewed," Dr. McAllister says, "sex is viewed as a luxury. They are on survival mode. So the first priority is survival, not luxuries. For many husbands, sex is perceived differently-it is viewed more as a necessity. Women often are more relationship-oriented, while men are more action-oriented."

A few of the steps couples can take to make sure they still find time for one another amidst their busy lives are:

1. Understand that intimacy is very important for the partner.
2. Be willing to make a compromise. You can###t always say yes or no.
3. Make time for it. In your 20s, spontaneity may have ruled, but now your lives may be much too complicated. Find some time when you can give each other undivided attention. It will get easier and the relationship will be less volatile if the partner knows that once a week, there is time for intimacy.

McAllister herself is attempting to "downsize" her life at present to retain more of her self for her children aged 7 and 8 (her oldest son is 21 and in the Marine Corps). She works part-time in an emergency department and is devoting more time to writing. Her next book will focus on optimizing health at every stage of aging through nutrition.

To read more about Dr. McAllister, her books and other work, go to her website at .