Tanja Premru-Sršen – Bellabeat

Inspirational Women interview with Dr. Tanja Premru-Sršen

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I’ve said many times over already how my mother is the woman that has inspired me the most on my personal and professional path. No matter how many times I talk about it, it will hardly ever be enough to express my love and gratitude for all that she is to me.

Apart from my personal connection to her, my mother is also a big part of Bellabeat. She was our original inspiration in creating wellness tracking products for women and remains actively involved in our brand and products as our medical advisor to this day.

Asist. Prof. Tanja Premru-Sršen, M.D., Ph.D. is a specialist in fetal-maternal medicine and ultrasound diagnostic in pregnancy. She received her PhD degree for the thesis entitled “Fetal hypoxia and breech delivery” in 1998 and has since accumulated over 30 years of experience working in her field. She also acted as Head of the Department of Perinatology, UMC Ljubljana until she stepped down from this role to focus on research.

I have the utmost admiration for my mother, not just because of her strong will and dedication that enabled her to achieve so much professionally, but also because of her contagious joie de vivre. Besides being a kick-ass doctor, published researcher and lecturer in the field of fetal-maternal medicine, Dr. Tanja is a passionate tourist (one that makes hours-long travel video logs, then makes the whole family watch it over and over :)), windsurfer, skier and, of-course, mom. She’s one of those people that always sees the positive in any situation and never even considers giving up as an option.

But the main reason why I’ve been anticipating this Inspirational Women interview in particular is because, even though I’ve inherited some of Dr. Tanja’s drive, it will still take me decades to catch up, wisdom- and knowledge-wise. So until -or if I ever- do, I’m so happy she is always there for us at Bellabeat to answer any and all women’s wellness-related questions. This time, through a series of health related questions for our exclusive Inspirational Women series.

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INTERVIEW

1. Tanja; without you, there would be no Bellabeat. Sandro and I would probably never have come up with this idea of developing tech-powered wellness tools to help women track and manage their well-being. Can you tell us a bit about your work?

Perinatal medicine is a very challenging and exciting field of medicine. New treatment possibilities along with the ever-growing knowledge of pregnancy physiology and pathophysiology enable more and more women, even those with the most severe chronic diseases, to become mothers.

As a maternal-fetal specialist, I take care of pregnant women with chronic diseases that can complicate their pregnancy, as well as women with pregnancy-induced diseases. The primary goal is to prevent worsening of a chronic disease, or any complications during pregnancy due to a chronic disease like preterm birth or preeclampsia.

However, even in otherwise healthy pregnant women, pregnancy can induce some severe disorders. The most health (and life) threatening, pregnancy-induced disease is pre-eclampsia. Therefore, our efforts are directed towards screening, preventing and treating pre-eclampsia to avoid serious health problems in both the mother and her unborn baby.

Since the development of new technologies in perinatology, especially diagnostic ultrasound, and cardiotocography, as well as genetics, unborn babies have also become our little patients. I never get tired of observing babies with ultrasound. Even so tiny, they already express their unique personality with their reactions and grimacing.

When performing clinical work, there are always new observations and unresolved questions that need to be explored. Therefore, my clinical work is inseparable from the research which, at the moment, is focused on fetal growth restriction and the influence of pregnant women’s microbiota on preterm birth.

2. You have more than 30 years of experience working with female patients in different periods of their lives. What would you say has changed in the last 15 years, considering health trends? What are some of the common modern lifestyle issues women experience that you’re encountering now more than before?

Just as every new generation, the generation Y, or Millennials, is in many ways different from the previous X generation.

On one hand, they are more self-confident and ambitious, and on the other, they are more insecure, vulnerable, and mainstream lifestyle-dependent. Their upbringing has been more permissive, while parental control and expectations over their lives are more overwhelming.

On one side, more women than ever are obsessed with leading a healthy lifestyle: vigorously training, counting calories, eating only organic food. On the other side, I have to mention the increasing number of women with eating disorders leading to obesity or anorexia, who are also mostly physically passive. Many times, anxious and depressive disorders are typical for both extremes.

Obesity and physical inactivity have become a significant health issue. Obesity increases the risk of all possible complications during pregnancy, especially increasing the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in their children.

Increasing anxiety and depressive disorders among women of all ages are alarming because they also cause complications during pregnancy, and lead to suicidal thoughts and behavior. In many high-income countries, depression with suicide is nowadays one of the primary causes of maternal mortality rates.

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3. As your daughter, I naturally always came to you first with my health issues. But what is interesting is that I actually remember taking medications a lot less frequently than my peers at school. Sometimes I still get frustrated when I come to you, looking for a quick solution to something, but instead of writing a prescription you give me advice in the lines of - sleep more, eat better, & stress less.
That’s quite contradictory to what most people think about western medicine and it’s dependence on pharmaceutical drugs. What do you think about our modern day dependence on drugs to treat all kinds of symptoms and what is your most universal advice for a healthy life?

An old Slovenian saying goes: “A flower grows for every disease. For some, we should consume it and for the others, we should smell it.”

Every drug is developed for a specific target. If we do not possess it, we do not need medication. If someone has a bacterial angina antibiotic treatment is necessary. If someone has a virosis, and most infectious diseases are caused by viruses, there is no need for use of an antibiotic. Unfortunately, many people treat virus infections with antibiotics, thus helping the body create antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Along with this, any and every antibiotic treatment causes harm to the gut and vaginal microbiome. Altered gut microbiota weakens or alters the immune system provoking the development of autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease, allergies, food intolerances and common symptoms like headache, nervousness and tiredness, even depressive disorders.

Besides antibiotics, the most abused drugs are drugs for treating symptoms, and not the disease: painkillers, sleeping medication, and anxiolytics. Most of the common symptoms are actually caused by an unhealthy lifestyle – working long hours, being under stress for extended periods of time, irregular and inappropriate eating, insufficient water intake, physical inactivity, and lack of sleep. Following this, the most appropriate cure would, therefore, be a proper organization of working activity, nutrition, physical activity, hydration, social life, and at least six to seven hours of sleep.

I don’t think that there is a universal recipe for a satisfied and balanced life. My life experiences tell me that we should always listen to our inner voice instead -- most of the time it’s the best advisor.

I don’t think that there is a universal recipe for a satisfied and balanced life. My life experiences tell me that we should always listen to our inner voice instead -- most of the time it’s the best advisor.

4. Unfortunately, despite all the valuable advice I have at hand, as a young woman I often find it so hard to take care of myself. Finding a place in this crazy, competitive world can sometimes be so overwhelming, especially when it’s hard to align my professional ambitions and my personal life aspirations. I often feel like just one of me is not enough to do and achieve everything that is expected of me. Why do you think it is so hard to look after ourselves and why do young people struggle so much to maintain physical and mental well-being nowadays?

Doing our professional work, we may be driven by two forces: love for what we are doing, and ambitions for promotion or a higher paycheck. The second force is mercilessly connected to competition with coworkers or other companies. Taking care of ourselves is driven only by how much we love ourselves, and there is no competition.

We all know that each day only has 24 hours in it and, unfortunately, we cannot change that. Instinctively, it is much easier to give up taking care of our mind and body, than neglecting our professional performance. However, at some point, it is ultimately necessary to take a break, assess the level of importance of everything we do, reorganize our schedule, and make a commitment to find time for self-care. Otherwise we are risk losing at both ends - endangering our health and becoming unproductive at work.

5. Since I was a child, I had problems with autoimmune conditions like eczema and now gluten intolerance. I remember us trying every possible way of treating my symptoms, but you always emphasized the importance of treating the illness from within: with diet adjustments and focusing on clearing my mind. As I get older, I become more and more aware of how my outbreaks are a direct result of stress.
Can you talk about how this works, and what the relationship between our body and mind is based on? What happens to our body when we are stressed, and what are some of the dangers of long-term stress exposure?

Reading your question, an anecdote has come to my mind.

When I was in my twenties, one day I came home from our hospital practice, as tired and exhausted as one can be. Subconsciously, I wished I had caught some kind of a virus infection, since I was so tired and just wanted to rest. I searched for the thermometer and measured my body temperature. To my surprise -- I had a high fever. From that moment on, I got a headache, started to get cold shivers and my vision became blurred. I laid down on my couch, and covered myself with two blankets. I was laying on that couch, drained of energy and feeling awful, when my mother came home and told me that the thermometer that I had used was not functioning correctly. It showed the same raised temperature every time when used -- hence the high fever it was showing me. Whether I liked it or not, my symptoms withdrew immediately. Headache was gone, I was not shivering anymore, and my vision went back to normal.

The mind and the body communicate in many ways. We are all very well aware of psychosomatic diseases like a duodenal ulcer, irritable bowel syndrome, migraine, or chronic pelvic pain. While short-term stress prepares our body and mind for action, and is sometimes necessary to increase our effectiveness, long term stress asserts ill effects on our endocrine, cardiovascular and nervous system thus increasing the risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, and decreasing of our mental ability. On the other hand, we all know about placebo effect, which seems reasonably effective in relieving symptoms like pain, and can have a beneficial influence on some physiologic functions, such as gastric motility and lung function.

If we want to be and feel our best, it is essential that we recognize the extensive connection between our body and mind. Exercise, healthy eating and sleeping habits, and stress reduction techniques like meditation or mindfulness can help us keep our brain and body in good shape, making us ready to take on and overcome stressful situations.

6. Many women have trouble conceiving or leading a healthy pregnancy. With the tempo of modern lifestyle and the pressure we put on ourselves, stress seems to be a major factor. How does stress influence our chances at conceiving and leading a healthy pregnancy?

Chronic stress, which goes hand in hand with the high life tempo and demanding careers, can cause trouble when conceiving. In chronic stress, our neuroendocrine and immune system informs our body that we live in a permanently hostile environment - which is not appropriate for a growing fetus. Additionally, postponing pregnancy to an older age can often cause prolonged time of pregnancy, or even inability to conceive. It’s not rare for women who had experienced unexplained infertility but had previously conceived and gave birth after using in-vitro fertilization to, next time, conceived spontaneously without need for IVF.

It happens when they finally relax and ease off all the stress that came with not being able to conceive. Often, this also happens because these women start leading a healthier lifestyle, for the sake of the baby.

High levels of stress and chronic stress can also be harmful to the course of pregnancy, labor, and delivery. Stress can cause preterm birth and influence the baby’s growth negatively. Psychosomatic diseases are also a part of hypertensive disorders during pregnancy. For women under stress, labor can be more painful, the progress of labor slower, and in some cases even halted; therefore, stressed women often deliver with cesarean section.

Obesity has the same effect on pregnancy, just like other bad habits such as smoking, drinking alcohol, binge drinking or drug abuse. Relieving stress and adopting a healthy lifestyle, optimally before getting pregnant, are a prerequisite for a healthy pregnancy and normal labor and delivery. It is the same as when preparing for a very long marathon.

7. Many western doctors are starting to recognize the importance of meditation, recommending it to treat a wide variety of symptoms; from acne to depression. What have you discovered to be some of the benefits of meditation?

Meditation is a perfect way of strengthening our mind and intellectual ability, stabilizing emotions, and reconnecting our mind and body in a beneficial way. Meditation can reset our mind-body connections, creating new connective pathways in the brain. It has the strength to relieve psychosomatic disorders before they become a disease, due to irreversible damage to organs or tissues.

Living in the madness of our fast-paced present world, we should all start teaching and practicing meditation as early as preschool, and make it an everyday habit at the beginning and end of every school or work day. Surely, there would be less health problems altogether.

8. Even back in 2012, you were really excited about the possible improvements that development in wearable and sensor technology could mean to patient monitoring and health management in professional health care. As a doctor, what do you believe could be improved with the help of technology that patients can take and use at home and on their own? How do you see the future of professional health care with technology for tracking our health becoming more and more accessible and accurate?

Back then, and even more now, I am convinced that wearable technology can improve our efforts for a healthy lifestyle by advising, leading, supporting and giving feedback information.

Wearable technology and sensors have already found their place in managing chronic diseases like hypertension, certain heart diseases and diabetes. Better control over your treatment and keeping track of treated parameters can prevent the progression of a disease, slow it down, or even prevent lethal accidents.

With better control over a disease, a patient is capable of functioning normally, and there is less need for visiting your doctor or hospitalization. I believe that managing patients with chronic diseases through health tracking technology is going to reduce the burden and costs on the overall healthcare system; I am convinced that health tracking technology is the future of modern medicine.

That is not to say that health tracking technology will substitute a personal relationship with healthcare providers; it will just make it more efficient.

9. You’re obviously a perfect example of being able to have it all as a woman: a successful career and a family. Still, sometimes we argue about whether young women today have it harder because there’s less support for young families available, and more pressure on young people -men and women- at work. What can you say about the work-life balance and aligning your professional and personal aspirations?

Despite many how-to-lead-a-successful-life bestsellers, I don’t think that there is a universal recipe for a satisfied and balanced life. My life experiences tell me that we should always listen to our inner voice instead -- most of the time it’s the best advisor. Whenever we make big decisions, be it regarding our professional or personal life, we should ask our inner voice if this is what we like and are comfortable with.

If we love doing something, it is much easier to make some compromises or sacrifices when we have to. But only to the limit where we are still comfortable with a new situation. When we feel more uncomfortable than ever with any of our engagements, we should rethink and make new decisions, rebalancing our life. And we should never, ever regret any decision we make; regrets are a waste of efforts and time. We should just learn from past experiences to make improvements in the present life.

This is how I strive to balance my professional and family life, and do my hobbies. I love my professional work, I like to take care of my patients, and I enjoy doing research. But most of all, I love my family.

10. You’ve already achieved so much, but you’re still not slowing down. How do you see your life changing in the next 10 years? What would you still like to achieve and how much do you think about your health and well-being when planning for the future?

Doing my work, I never think of what I would like to achieve personally. Everything I have ever done was because I loved doing it, was challenged by it, feeling curious or had the wish to make improvements in the care of our patients. For me, everything else comes naturally with that.

In the next 10 years I plan to retire, but until then I want to work the same way I have until now; well, maybe slowing down just a little. I intend to continue with meditation, face yoga, sports activities - skiing, windsurfing and mountain walking, as well as traveling. In preparation for retirement with my friends, we are in the process of organizing a monthly reading club. I am really looking forward to this; I believe it will unburden our brains, but still make them work. :)

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