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How to protect your data in a post-Roe world

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Femtech World meets James Walker, CEO of Rightly, to understand what women can do to protect their health data after the Roe overturn.

In June 2022, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade which previously gave women a federally guaranteed right to abortion across all US States.

Since then, experts have urged women to delete their period tracking apps fearing that the user’s data may become incriminating if seeking for an abortion.

Statistics from Rightly show a 4400 per cent increase in the number of requests for data deletion from women’s health apps such as Period Tracker, MyFlo and My Calendar, compared to the weeks prior to the Roe decision.

After the overturn there has been a “strong upsurge with women thinking about who’s got their data,” explains James Walker, CEO of Rightly. “There has been a sudden growth, both from the UK and from the US, after Roe v. Wade. 

“People have started to think ‘I don’t necessarily want all of my health data being held by a health app’ or ‘who could they share my data with?’.”

Is ‘anonymous’ really anonymous?

In response to these concerns, numerous women’s health apps have introduced an anonymous mode that “allows users to use the services without any personally identifiable information, such as name, email address, and technical identifier being associated with the account,” wrote period tracking app Flo. 

“The anonymous mode is the way to go,” says Walker. “But I think there is a step further, which is understanding how algorithms are used and how we are being marketed.

“I can have you as an anonymous user but I can still classify you and I can still work out how to market you. So, the anonymous mode is actually preventing your data being shared to a wider audience but it still doesn’t mean that you’re not being profiled or marketed by the app. 

“I would still be wary of how my data is being used even if in anonymous mode.”

‘The first thing to do is reading the terms and conditions’

Wariness about how ‘anonymous’ these apps really are, is backed by the fact that every activity carried out online leaves a digital trace that tech companies collect in form of data. These may have a functional purpose  – essential information needed to provide the services – or they may be sold for commercial reasons.

In response to the Dobbs decision, several femtech companies released statements assuring users that the data entered is ‘private and safe’. But, evidence gathered so far suggested the contrary.

For example, a study showed that nearly 90 per cent of the top 23 women’s health apps in the US share data with third parties, with only 50 per cent requesting users permission to do so.

“The first thing to do is reading the terms and conditions,” suggests Walker. “Most people don’t spend any time doing it.”

Walker explains that carefully reading the terms and conditions is the only precaution that can be taken as he explains that any other solution is only applied after the data breach has already happened.

‘Every data is health data’

Data protection in the EU is covered by the GDPR which stands for General Data Protection Regulation. This regulation went into effect in 2018 and it places limits on what organisations can do with users’ personal data.

“GDPR is pretty open on the way that your data can be used,” says Walker. “But the way your data is actually used is blurred with it. 

“The UK government is looking more and more into how firms can use anonymised health data to be able to build better algorithms and better services. They see the value in the commercial services that can be delivered from this.

“I think that leaving data privacy to governments will leave us in a situation where many people will be shocked and horrified in the future about how their data has been used and what’s been done with it.”

Walker suggests taking action, not only with women’s health apps, but with any online app as he explains that “every data is health data”.

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Why we must prioritise R&D to uplift maternal health standards

By Angela Brady, global innovation and partnering director at global health and nutrition company H&H Group

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Angela Brady, global innovation and partnering director at H&H Group

By investing in R&D for maternal health, we can offer women more choice and support to improve their experience throughout their journey.

Over the past few years, significant strides have been made in advancing maternal health, and supporting more women in their journey to motherhood – from predictive diagnostic tools to AI-enabled ultrasounds. Nonetheless, we still have a long way to go.

Far too many expectant mothers are still lacking the essential resources needed to nurture a healthy pregnancy. Recent research shows a staggering 90 per cent of women trying for a baby lack essential nutrients needed for a healthy pregnancy.

The research found that in pre-conception, nine in 10 women had marginal or low levels of folate, riboflavin, vitamin B12 or vitamin D. Moreover, many in their later stages of pregnancy showed signs of vitamin B6 deficiency.

These widespread deficiencies in critical nutrients pose significant risks to maternal health and foetal development, underscoring the urgent need to address them and better support women.

These deficiencies can have long term consequences for the child, impairing their physical and cognitive development, which is why nutrition is so important prior to, and during pregnancy. With the stakes this high, empowering women with the nutritional supplements needed to ensure they are supported throughout their journey to motherhood is vital.

Opening up access and educating women on the importance of these nutrients are the first steps for healthcare providers. Still, we all have a shared responsibility in improving and setting new standards for maternal health and prenatal wellness long term.

To tackle the crisis of deficiencies among expectant mothers and those looking to conceive, ongoing research and development (R&D) in maternal health needs to be prioritised.

Investing in progress – learning from women, to better support women

By gaining a deeper understanding of maternal health and foetal development, we can innovate ingredients that are both more accessible and of a higher quality for women.

Achieving this, however, requires more investment into research that identifies current disparities and nutrient gaps, and investigates initiatives and supplements that can address these issues, including the mental health of the mother.

Mental wellbeing pre-conception and during pregnancy are often overlooked and it’s crucial that women receive the appropriate support at these times and including postpartum. This holistic approach of supporting physical and mental wellbeing reduces the likelihood of complications during pregnancy which could have long term health consequences for mother and child.

It also maximises the postpartum bonding where developing emotional connection and attachment facilitates breastfeeding and stimulates social growth.

It’s encouraging to see foundations such as the Gates Foundation invest in R&D to spur innovations in health and nutrition that can improve maternal health outcomes and aid prevention, detection and treatment of conditions that affect women.

In the global wellness space, H&H Group’s non-profit research organisation, BINC (Biostime Institute Nutrition and Care), is spearheading research to support more women in their journey to motherhood.

We know pioneering initiatives to advance the story for good maternal health – from preconception to early child infancy – is critical. To combat nutrient deficiencies and enhance access to prenatal vitamins for maternal and infant health and wellness, we must put efforts into research first.

By continuing to invest in R&D for maternal health, we can offer women more choice and support to improve their experience throughout their journey, raising the standards for maternal health.

Plugging nutrition gaps – translating insights into innovative solutions

For women with busy lifestyles, getting the exact right amount of nutrients needed can be challenging. It doesn’t help that at a time where women are already contending with pregnancy related challenges – both mental and physical – they are also in a critical window where nutrition is paramount.

With all this in mind, it can understandably be difficult to keep track of nutritional intake, which is why a simpler solution is needed.

Simply put, for women struggling to intake the key vitamins and nutrients needed to support a healthy pregnancy, there needs to be better, and more accessible options available, such as wearables and at-home diagnostics for monitoring and tracking maternal and foetal health.

The hope is that by prioritising R&D, we can create more innovative products that can plug this gap, and tackle deficiencies head on.

With more pioneering research, we can develop more products and solutions to nurture healthy pregnancies and set new standards for health, wellness and care.

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Don’t believe the social-media hype: why collagen face masks will probably let your skin down

By Melissa Snover, registered nutritionist and founder of Nourished

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Melissa Snover, registered nutritionist and founder of Nourished

Melissa Snover, registered nutritionist and founder of Nourished personalised nutrient stacks, explains why the claims made for collagen skin treatments should be treated with a great deal of caution

Recently, there has been significant attention on social media and in the press, about how collagen face masks, creams and serums are a wonderful way to have firmer, younger-looking skin.

Beauty influencers have been talking about how masks make their skin plumper and even given them fuller lips. Meanwhile, we’re told that numerous celebrities swear by collagen serums and creams.

Collagen is, indeed, a vital protein for maintaining the health of your skin. As you get older, your body produces less, your skin dries and wrinkles appear.

Boosting your levels is definitely a way of delaying the appearance of aging. Your skin will become more elastic, and it will look fresher and less tired. But collagen creams, face masks and serums aren’t the best way forward. How well they work is open to a great deal of doubt. It should possibly go without saying, but don’t trust everything you see or hear on Instagram, TikTok and the like.

Influencers and marketing teams will tell you that applying a face mask or serum are great ways to absorb collagen into your skin. However, collagen molecules are quite large – usually too large to move through your skin into your bloodstream, which is where they are needed if they are going to be broken down and have real impact.

When placed in a cream or mask, these molecules are largely going to just sit on or near the skin’s surface. Collagen masks and serums may moisturise your skin and make it look healthier and firmer, in the short term. They may contain other ingredients than can help nourish it but they are unlikely to bring any long-term benefits through collagen.

Many social media reviews and posts about collagen creams and masks talk about instant effects. These may even be visible on camera, such as plumper skin reducing the appearance of fine lines, but they don’t tend to focus on long-term benefits.

Influencers aren’t usually qualified dermatologists or nutritionists. They don’t always have an in-depth understanding of how to maintain skin health in a lasting way.

Some collagen masks and serums contain hydrolysed collagen. These are smaller protein chains that you may have heard are easier for the skin to absorb. This is true, to an extent, but be wary of online or marketing exaggeration. The collagen they contain is still very unlikely to penetrate deep enough to have substantial effects.

The best way to get collagen into your system is through nutritional supplements and stacks – pills, drinks and gummies whose ingredients are absorbed quickly by the bloodstream. They supply the body directly with collagen and collagen peptides break down into amino acids to support the body’s own production of further collagen.

Over days and weeks – not instantly, as the TikTok videos may have you believe with face masks – your skin will become more radiant and should have fewer wrinkles. You’ll also boost your joint health.

Pro-collagen skin masks and creams promise to provide ingredients, such as vitamin C, that stimulate the body to produce its own collagen but even these are far less likely to have long-term positive effects than a supplement that contains collagen and pro-collagens.

In an era where social media can often blur the lines between marketing and science, it is crucial to rely on evidence-based practices for health and wellness.

Content creators often lack the expertise of medical experts and can make exaggerated or false claims without scientific studies to back them up.

They may not do this deliberately but they are in the business of likes, views and leaping on to the latest trends, not following carefully conducted research and studies. They also generally can’t give personalised advice, potentially leading to ineffective or even damaging results.

Nourished provides personalised nutrition stacks containing countless combinations of everything from zinc to ginseng and beetroot. They can boost your bones, your heart, energy – and your skin.

Our Collagen+ Stacks, contain Ovoderm®, a premium source of collagen consisting of over 400 proteins and Collagen I, V & X. The product is created from eggshell waste, so is more sustainable than many animal or marine-derived collagen brands, which are associated with poor animal-welfare practices and overfishing. 

For more information, visit get-nourished.com/

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From PCOS to thyroid troubles- an exploration of women’s hormones

By Dr Haleema Sheikh, a specialist in integrative women’s health and bioidentical hormone balancing for the Marion Gluck Clinic

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Dr Haleema Sheikh, a specialist in integrative women's health and bioidentical hormone balancing for the Marion Gluck Clinic

Hormones are our bodies’ communication messengers. They are chemicals that are released by one organ/tissue that are carried in the blood and impact another organ/tissue and thus coordinate different functions in our body.

These signals tell your body what to do and when to do it and cause significant issues when there is hormonal imbalance.

Hormonal balance is very often related to our lifestyle. The environment we bathe our genes in impacts which genes are switched on and off.

Our body is always trying to be balanced and so our hormones adapt to try to create balance within the body and are a reflection of environmental and mental inputs.

Unlike men who have a 24hr testosterone cycle with testosterone peaking in the morning, the female menstrual cycle requires a complex dance of hormones to interplay to release an egg monthly.

This includes building up the lining of the womb in preparation for a fertilised egg and if there is no pregnancy to allow the lining to break down and start the whole process again.

This roughly 28-day cycle can be easily unbalanced by a number of factors, including poor nutrition, suboptimal movement, disturbed sleep, excess stress, poor relationships and high toxic burden from environmental toxins.

Reproductive hormonal symptoms can show up in a variety of ways including painful and/or heavy periods, infertility, altered cycle and PMS.

PCOS is a common (one in five to 10 women) but often poorly understood whole body hormonal/metabolic disorder that affects women of reproductive age.

The defining feature of PCOS is irregular/anovulatory cycles and the over-production of male type hormones- androgens. The increased androgens can lead to acne, oily skin and hirsutism.

Many women with PCOS also struggle with weight gain, particularly in the abdominal area.

The irregular cycles can interfere with getting pregnant and so balancing the hormones is key to restoring fertility.

There are genetic predispositions for PCOS which had a survival advantage in the past when food was scarce, and we had to fight predators.

It has been said that women with PCOS have the genes of warrior princesses and this is why it has perpetuated.

Women with this condition are struggling in today’s modern society because we are often sitting at work for hours at a time and then sitting in front of screens in the evening.

Our genes expect movement in the day and to follow natural rhythms and the sedentary nature of modern day life results in a mismatch and health issues.

The name arises from the multiple follicles seen on ultrasound of affected women- these are not true cysts.

Many young women will have these appearances and should not be automatically diagnosed with PCOS unless they have the androgen excess symptoms and irregular periods.

Women suffering from PCOS have hormonal imbalance that has a few root causes including blood sugar regulation (insulin resistance), inflammation and poor gut health. Addressing these areas is foundational to managing and reversing PCOS symptoms.

The conventional medical model is focussed on managing symptoms of PCOS and will often result in putting women on the pill to regulate periods and reduce androgen symptoms, but this is not dealing with the root cause and bringing the body back into balance.

When women have difficulty getting pregnant, they are given drugs to try to induce ovulation or referred for IVF. These are useful options to explore when lifestyle interventions have not been fruitful and should remain a reserve option.

The functional medicine approach to PCOS focuses on:

  1. Optimising diet to improve insulin sensitivity through encouraging low-carb nutrition which helps improve insulin resistance a cornerstone driver of the condition.
  2. Supporting gut health to reduce inflammation which is another key factor. Pre and probiotics can support the gut microbiome which modulate hormone balance and detoxification.
  3. Reducing exposed to toxic ‘endocrine disrupters’ in the environment like BPA in plastics because they’ve been shown to disrupt the hormonal system by altering the way in which hormones interact with their receptors and how they are used/ metabolised within the body. Thesexenoestrogens can be found in plastic bottles/containers and in many skincare products/makeup which get absorbed through the skin so it is important to use ‘clean’ products and work on minimising exposure.
  4. Minimising stress through lifestyle tweaks like meditation and yoga which help support the parasympathetic rest and digest nervous system.
  5. Using targeted supplements and herbs to support hormones further, including magnesium, which improves insulin sensitivity and is anti-inflammatory, omega 3 fatty acids, inositol and zinc.

We can also use natural bioidentical progesterone to help women with PCOS kick start a regular ovulatory cycle.

Progesterone is released in the second half of the cycle after ovulation.

Professor Jerilyn Prior has been a pioneer in her work on the use of cyclical natural progesterone for two weeks on and two weeks off to help trigger ovulation in women who are not ovulating, and this helps correct the hormonal imbalance. This can fully explored in a bioidentical hormone clinic.

Thus, in the example of PCOS we can see the far-reaching, whole-body consequences of reproductive hormone balance.

Interestingly, women are also five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid hormone problems, with one in eight women developing a thyroid disorder during her lifetime.

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck that produces hormones (thyroxine) essential for regulating metabolism, body temperature, energy, heart rate, menstrual cycle, mood, and hair and nail growth.

Essentially, it serves as the body’s thermostat controlling how fast things happen in the body by its actions on different organs/tissues.

There are two main categories of thyroid problems hypothyroidism (an under-active thyroid) and hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid).

In the case of hypothyroidism, the body literally slows down and causes symptoms like weight gain, brain fog, constipation and sluggishness.

The thyroid is not producing enough of the thyroid hormones – triiodothyronine T3 (active form) orthyroxine T4 or both.

The thyroid is a sentinel gland assessing the environment and ensuring the body adapts appropriately.  It requires a number of nutrients to function optimally and lack of these can cause it to under function. These nutrients include selenium, zinc, vitamin A, iron and iodine.

Reversing these deficiencies can help the thyroid improve its functioning.

In addition, the immune system can become muddled and produce autoantibodies which mark the thyroid for destruction by the white cells of the immune system. This is called Hashimoto’s disease an autoimmune condition which is more common amongst women.

There is a triad of genetic predisposition, increased gut wall permeability which allows the immune system to be more activated and a trigger e.g. stress/gluten exposure which ignites the whole process resulting in the production of antibodies which label the thyroid as foreign and for attack.

The conventional medical model works on trying to reduce the symptoms of hypothyroidism by giving replacement thyroxine support.

This can help the situation but does not address the immune activations and high levels of antibodies causing the thyroid to be attacked. Patients will feel a bit better, but it certainly does not bring vitality and full wellbeing to the majority.

In the functional medicine world patients are often given replacement hormone but there will also be emphasis on addressing the root cause by:

  1. Improving gut health and reducing gut permeability. This requires working on the gut microbiome and nutrition. 85 per cent of patients with Hashimoto’s do better on a gluten-free diet because there is molecular mimicry between the gluten molecule and the thyroid and in individuals with a genetic predisposition the immune system reaction against gluten ingested can also target thyroid tissue.
  2. Working on the other pillars of health sleep, relaxation and movement can also help bring the body back into balance and help the immune activation.
  3. Ensuring there are not nutritional deficiencies impacting the gland.

Women in the perimenopause and menopause are more at risk of thyroid disorders as there are oestrogen receptors on the thyroid and at this time there is hormonal fluctuations which can trigger thyroid dysfunction.

During the menopause, as a result of the lack of estrogen, thyroid function can be suboptimal and this can contribute to the menopausal weight gain around the middle that happens and the deterioration in lipid panels.

We can see how endocrine glands interact with each other; the body has a complex web of interconnection which help keep the body in balance.

When we are seeing hormonal dysfunction symptoms is important not only to look at symptoms control but to look at deeper root causes driving the issues.

Careful consideration to the environment we are bathing our genes is key to optimal hormonal health and this is best done with a medical professional who understands the importance of hormonal health.

To find out more, visit the Marion Gluck Clinic.

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