How Discrimination Can Hurt Women's Physical Health

Written by Jandra Sutton
How Discrimination Can Physically Harm Women's Health

Image by ZHPH Production / Stocksy

Thanks to movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, our collective society feels more aware than ever of the systematic oppression faced by women and especially women of color. But while it's more obvious how discrimination can hurt people emotionally, socially, and economically, what about the harm it can cause to our physical health?

In a recent study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, researchers examined whether women's exposure to everyday discrimination could predict the risk of cardiovascular disease. They looked into existing data from the Study of Women's Health Across the Nation, examining responses from over 2,100 women who self-identified as white, black, Chinese, Japanese, and Hispanic. The study asked the women to describe their day-to-day experiences with discrimination, including being treated with less courtesy than others, receiving poorer service than others, or having people ignore them or act like they aren't there. They ranked the frequency of their experiences on a scale—often, sometimes, rarely, or never. Meanwhile, the study also tracked the women's blood pressure, hypertension status, waistline circumference, and body mass index (BMI). The researchers followed up with these women annually for over a decade.

The results? Women who regularly reported exposure to discrimination at least "sometimes" or "often" were more likely to experience increased body fat and higher blood pressure over time.

Interestingly, there wasn't any variation in the link between discrimination and increased blood pressure when it comes to race or ethnicity, suggesting women's experience of discrimination hurts their health regardless of race. However, black women reported the highest rates of exposure to everyday discrimination, which resulted in the highest waist circumference, BMIs, and risk of hypertension.

These findings add to a growing body of research that suggests discrimination really does harm people in a way that goes beyond inflicting emotional distress and keeping its victims at a lower place in society. In addition to the negative impact on cardiovascular health, discrimination has been associated with greater rates of diabetes, respiratory problems, sleep disturbances, daytime fatigue, and depression.

How can this be? One possible explanation is stress, some studies suggest. Every time we're discriminated against, we're adding to the pile of extreme stress that so many of us are carrying on a daily basis—on top of the fear, anxiety, and ever-growing to-do lists that every adult deals with. That chronic stress, which releases an unhealthy amount of the hormone cortisol into the body, can be incredibly toxic.

"When cortisol is not in balance, it can lead to weight gain, low libido, headaches, anxiety, depression, low energy, insomnia, blood sugar issues, skipped menstrual periods, infertility, gut issues, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease," explains Dr. Serena Goldstein, N.D. "Cortisol is a huge part of our body's 'fight or flight' response, which is activated in times of high stress—like running from a bear."

But instead of being in a state of high stress when we're actually in danger, that daily dehumanization caused by discrimination—and the latest current events—may be causing many women to experience heightened stress constantly. That's seriously bad news for our bodies, which stop functioning properly when flooded with that amount of cortisol.

These findings highlight the reality of just how tangibly harmful discrimination can be. It doesn't just destroy the possibility of a truly equal society; it's actually wreaking havoc on our physical bodies. People's lives and well-being are on the line, and in a country that was built on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it's becoming more clear than ever before that these palpable problems require equally palpable solutions.

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