Sexual and reproductive health
26th August 2019
The concept of sexual and reproductive health is multifaceted and complex. Some people may think that it only relates to the physical elements of our sex lives and reproductive system. However, that could not be further from the truth. Relationships and mental wellbeing are huge factors in reproductive health, something that is now being better recognised.
What is sexual and reproductive health?
Public Health England describes it as ‘A state of physical, mental, and social well-being in all matters relating to the reproductive system.’ The same report succinctly outlines that reproductive health includes a ‘satisfying and safe sex life’. It also notes “the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when, and how often to do so.”
Overall, sexual and reproductive health is all about having a happy and healthy sex life. This means protecting yourself from dangerous situations and being able to access the care and support you need.
Why is sexual and reproductive health important?
The reproductive system is one of the most fragile in the human body. It needs to be nurtured and protected throughout our lives, and we should all practice sexual self care.
We all know the unhealthy lifestyle choices we make when we’re younger can impact our general health later in life. The same goes for reproductive health. One of the key issues that can be impacted by sexual and reproductive health is our fertility. Whilst many cases of infertility are unavoidable or simply unlucky, looking after your reproductive health will increase your chances of a healthy pregnancy.
Reproductive health and preconception care are intrinsically linked. Practising safe sex – preventing STIs and unwanted pregnancy – when we’re younger, is important for both our health and our fertility. It means, when the time comes to start a family, our reproductive system will be in much healthier shape.
Elements of sexual health
There are numerous facets to sexual and reproductive health. A lot of them overlap, and they all impact each other in some shape or form. Together these elements form the basis of a healthy approach to sex and reproduction.
Pregnancy & Fertility
Pregnancy is one of the most prevalent factors of reproductive health. In the PHE report, trying not to get pregnant was by far the most important reproductive health issue for the women surveyed. However, getting pregnant was also cited as a concern, specifically for women between 25 and 34.
This perfectly illustrates the frustration of so many women – we spend half our lives trying to get pregnant and then when we want a baby, it’s not always as easy as we would hope!
Women should all be able to access the pre and postnatal care they need, and should also be able to access contraception to prevent pregnancy if they are not ready to start a family yet.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases are one of the biggest risk factors for our reproductive health, for both men and women. If left untreated they can lead to infertility issues, especially in women.
Two of the most common STIs, Chlamydia and Gnohrreha can have disastrous effects on our reproductive health, but they are easily prevented and treated. Diseases like HIV are harder to treat, but they are also easily avoided by practising safe sex.
Condoms are key when it comes to STIs. You may be on hormonal contraception to prevent you from getting pregnant, but they won’t protect you from STIs. Some STIs, like herpes, can be transmitted via skin to skin contact and can spread further than the genital area. It’s important to be open with your partner about your sexual health (and for them to do the same for you) so you can take appropriate measures to protect you both from infection.
Contraception is obviously a key factor in sexual health and impacts almost every other element. Using the right contraception will not only prevent you from unwanted pregnancy and STIs, but it will also give you more control around your reproductive health. Luckily, there are now numerous options, so you will be able to find one that suits your body and situation.
If you are confused about your contraceptive choices, speak to your GP, or take a read of the NHS’s contraception guide.
Our menstrual cycle changes as we grow on older, and with those changes come various potential issues that women may need support for. When a young girl starts her period, she will need advice and education on her sanitary options. Unfortunately, many young girls do not have access to the products they need on a monthly basis. This basic need is integral to sexual health, and it’s why charities like Bloody Good Period, work hard to make sure every girl can access tampons or towels.
As we go through our lives, our periods are an indicator of our reproductive health. Irregular cycles may indicate PCOS, or other fertility issues and as we enter menopause our periods will stop, Throughout each stage, there are support options available and medical interventions that may be required to maintain good sexual health.
Our relationships deeply impact our sexual and reproductive health. Part of looking after your sexual health is making smart choices about who you let into your life and having an open, honest and supportive relationship with your chosen partner.
A healthy relationship is not only great for our mental wellbeing but also means our partners respect our choices when it comes to sexual health. In an abusive relationship, they may have no regard for your wants and needs when it comes to contraception or pregnancy.
Choice and safety are the pillars of sexual health. Any sexual activity should always be consensual, whether it’s with your partner or not. As a woman, you should get the choice of when to have sex or not, as well as when to get pregnant and whether to use contraception. While much of reproductive health is founded on helping people have healthy babies and pregnancies, it also means providing safe and sanitary care for those who don’t want to be pregnant. Access to safe abortions is just as important as access to peri-natal care or fertility advice.
How to maintain good sexual and reproductive health
Here are some ways to take a proactive approach to your sexual health:
- Always use contraception when having sex. Even if you’re on hormonal contraception, use a condom to protect you from STIs.
- Get regular STI tests. Many people avoid going to the doctor’s to have these routine check-ups, but they are essential to maintaining good sexual health.
- Speak to your GP if you notice something wrong. You know your body and your body has a pretty good way of telling you if something is wrong. If your cycle changes, your hormones feel off or you notice symptoms of infection, never delay seeking professional help.
- Try to lead a healthy lifestyle. Eating a balanced diet, doing regular exercise and avoiding smoking and drinking alcohol are all great rules to live by and will help improve your overall health.
- Attend regular screenings for health issues such as cervical cancer.
- Communicate with your partner. In a sexual relationship, you should.
- If you’re in an abusive relationship or an unsafe situation, try and talk to someone.
Get more advice on fertility, sexual health and period problems: join Adia to talk to fertility experts for free!