Jennifer Ashton, M.D., is quite an accomplished woman. She’s an Emmy-award winning journalist who serves as the chief medical correspondent for ABC News and the co-host of Good Morning America 3 (GMA3). She’s also a physician double board-certified in OB-GYN and obesity medicine, and she holds a master’s degree in nutrition.
Ashton has written six books, including her most recent titles, “Life After Suicide,” “The Self-Care Solution” and “The New Normal,” maintains her own medical practice and recently launched a new magazine, Better, where she candidly discusses women’s health issues, including menopause, mental health, sleep, skincare and weight management. Like HealthyWomen, Ashton believes in empowering women by sharing the latest wellness and nutrition information, which is why we sat down with her to discuss the importance of being healthy in mind and body.
Our interview follows, edited for clarity and length.
HealthyWomen: Why is maintaining good mental health so important for women?
Jennifer Ashton, M.D.: Study after study has shown that women, particularly those over the age of 40, have been disproportionately affected by anxiety and depression since the Covid-19 pandemic. Women need to be proactive about their mental health and have regular conversations with their healthcare provider if they’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression, such as trouble sleeping, sleeping too much, feeling anxious or worrying a lot.
We all know heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., and we know we should be taking steps to reduce our risk of heart disease. Yet the reality is women also need to be proactive about reducing their risk of depression and anxiety, both very common conditions that are manageable and treatable.
As a practicing doctor, I don’t think I’ve had a single patient over the past three years who hasn’t told me how their mental health has been a source of stress or concern for them.
HealthyWomen: Do you think there’s still a stigma or reluctance for women to talk about mental health?
Jennifer Ashton, M.D.: If women are hesitant to bring up these concerns, it’s important for them to realize that taking care of their mental health is just as important as their physical health.
I think one of the big problems in our country is the way we view health and wellness. We have a hard time with moderation and go from one extreme to another, choosing to take either an all-natural remedy or a prescription medication, when we really should be taking a holistic approach to mental health. If women need medication to treat anxiety or depression, I’m all for it, but in addition, they should also speak to a mental health professional, practice a type of mindfulness and engage in some kind of physical activity that can dramatically reduce anxiety and depression. It’s not possible to just check off one box and instantly be cured. We need to address both the root cause of a person’s anxiety and depression and examine different treatment options.
HealthyWomen: In your book, “Life After Suicide,” you talk about how you’ve experienced anxiety at several points in your life, including after your ex-husband’s suicide in 2017. How did you manage your own anxiety?
Jennifer Ashton, M.D.: When I lost my ex-husband, I was on prescription medication for two weeks. I was literally doing everything I could to keep myself vertical for my children and do my best to not collapse. Today, I manage my stress and anxiety by meditating each weekday morning, and I try to meditate on the weekend too. Mediating has really made a huge difference in my life, but there were times after I lost my ex-husband, and certainly during the pandemic, that I felt such extreme anxiety that I had to take a prescription medication on a one-off basis. I don’t look at that as being any different than taking Tylenol to treat pain. In terms of physiology, if anxiety and depression are persistent and left untreated, they can lead to a cascade of other physical and psychological health problems.
If someone has severe anxiety that lasts day in and day out, they’re churning out high levels of cortisol, epinephrine, adrenaline and norepinephrine that can damage their brain and vascular system and suppress their immune system. By addressing symptoms of anxiety and depression early, women can save themselves from future health issues.
HealthyWomen: What are some of the more common health questions or concerns that women ask you?
Jennifer Ashton, M.D.: I think by far the most common health questions center around menopause, hormones, hair loss and weight/nutrition. In 2013, I returned to college to get a master’s degree in nutrition and became board-certified in obesity health medicine because almost every woman has questions relating to one of those areas. I’m glad to see there’s more attention being paid to menopause, in part because it’s the societal vibe of the time, but also because today many women are living longer and aging better, making 50 the new 40 and 60 the new 50.
For women, talking about menopause has become more acceptable and mainstream, but I think everyone should be talking about menopause, including men. I also believe it’s important to get trusted information about menopause from board-certified gynecologists and reliable health experts. Right now, many people are turning to social media to get information, and those sources aren’t always credible and legitimate.
HealthyWomen: What advice do you have for women who want to maintain good health as they age?
Jennifer Ashton, M.D.: I think the most important thing, and I talk about this in my books and in my new magazine, Better, is something I call, “the trifecta of good health.” Every day, your body needs three things: fuel, which is our food; rest, which is our sleep; and movement, which is our fitness and activity levels. Our bodies are smart machines, so they acclimate and adjust to our lifestyles. We need to constantly make sure we’re giving our body what it needs to keep us healthy. The way I describe it to people when they ask how I find time to meditate each day, is “I don’t find the time. I make the time,” which means waking up 40 minutes earlier so that I can do 20 minutes of meditation before my day gets away from me. Pick the self-care rituals that are important to you and try to practice them most days.
HealthyWomen: What’s next for you?
Jennifer Ashton, M.D.: Well, in 2024 I have some exciting projects planned in the menopause and nutrition space, and I think my credentials in obesity medicine, nutrition and women’s health really position me to be uniquely helpful to women who are going through weight issues, menopause or hormonal issues. I can’t say a lot more about the projects at this time, but I’ll be releasing more details in the coming months on my Instagram and on GMA3. Stay tuned!