Most women don’t need vitamin and mineral supplements. Usually, they are able to get what they need from the foods they eat–if they are eating a diet full of diverse and nutritious whole foods. However, everyone is different, so each individual may need supplementation of a nutraceutical (a food-based substance that provides benefit to the body) or supplement (single substances used alone or in mixtures to add micronutrients when the body is in need of them) now and then or even constantly. Here are some of the most common supplements that women may need.
About one-third of adult Americans are deficient in vitamin D. This number increases to about two-thirds in the population over 60. Except for foods fortified with vitamin D, few foods naturally contain vitamin D so the best place to get vitamin D is from a supplement. Another way to get vitamin D is sun exposure. Being outside in the sun for 20 minutes without sunscreen (but be sure to apply it after this exposure time!) with about 40% of your skin exposed can help your body produce the vitamin D it needs to keep your bones strong (weigh your risk of not wearing sunscreen against taking a Vitamin D supplement). Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to diabetes, some types of cancer (such as colon and breast cancers), high blood pressure, and heart disease. A recent study showed that taking vitamin D along with vitamin K, which helps with vitamin D absorption, is especially good for bone and heart health.
There are two main forms of vitamin D:
- Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol or “pre” vitamin D) is mainly produced in plants and found in fortified foods and supplements. Both forms or vitamin D are absorbed in the gut.
- Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). Vitamin D3 is the preferred form because studies have shown that it tends to have higher blood concentrations and is the form naturally produced in the body and found in foods that contain vitamin D.
Many women don’t get enough calcium, particularly teenage girls and women older than 50. Your bones need calcium, but your heart, muscles, and nerves need it too. When combined with vitamin D, it may protect against some types of cancers, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
There are different types of calcium, including calcium carbonate (most calcium by weight but should be taken with food), calcium citrate (good absorption but less calcium by weight than calcium carbonate), calcium gluconate, and calcium lactate. Read labels carefully to make sure you’re getting the best kind of calcium for you.
Studies estimate that 75% of adult Americans are not getting enough magnesium. Known as “the relaxer,” this important mineral helps with many of the problems that plague women, such as inability to sleep, headaches (including migraines), mood disorders, and constipation. In addition, keeping magnesium levels in a healthy range can help keep your blood pressure normal, your heart rhythm steady, and your bones strong. Low magnesium levels are associated with inflammation, which is a factor in many diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.
There are different forms of magnesium, so you’ll want to look for the type that can help you best. Here are some of the common types you’ll see in supplements and reasons you may want to use them:
- Magnesium citrate is one of the most common forms. A study showed that it’s more bioavailable than other forms of magnesium, meaning that your body can absorb it more easily. A recent study showed that it may have a calming effect for neurological disorders such as depression and anxiety. In higher doses, this type of magnesium can be used as a short-term solution to constipation.
- Magnesium glycinate is also easily absorbed by the body and is known for its calming properties. This type of magnesium is combined with glycine, which has been shown in studies to improve sleep on its own, so combining it with magnesium is a win-win for those who suffer from insomnia. This type of magnesium may also be good for headaches and can be taken regularly or as needed.
- Magnesium oxide is the old familiar “milk-of-magnesia” type of magnesium. It’s a very effective laxative and can also be used to relieve heartburn and indigestion.
The National Nutrition Survey found that more than 21 million Americans are deficient in vitamin C and that less than 30 million Americans actually had sufficient levels of this important vitamin. That leaves about 277 million Americans who are somewhere in the middle. Humans don’t manufacture vitamin C on their own; they need to get it from outside sources such as foods or supplementation. Vitamin C is a necessary antioxidant, helping protect cells from everyday damage. It also helps the immune system work properly and helps with absorption of iron.
Another, often overlooked, function of vitamin C is to help the body produce collagen. Collagen is a basic protein for the body–it holds your body together. It is necessary for the structure of skin, bones, and muscles and is important for wound healing. Many cosmetic products say they contain collagen, but it’s not likely that this type of collagen can be absorbed through the skin; the molecules are too large. Collagen production decreases with age, with a dramatic reduction in collagen production after menopause. This reduction causes wrinkles, joint pain, and an overall decrease in strength and structure of the body. Supplementing with vitamin C can help the body to maintain its collagen production.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs)
A meta-analysis recently showed that only about 4% of adults in North America had sufficient EFA levels. There are different types of EFAs, but one important subgroup of EFAs are the omega-3 fatty acids. The body can’t make these on its own; it needs to get these nutrients from food or supplementation. Omega-3s are part of cell membranes throughout the body. They help make the hormones that affect blood clotting and the function of artery walls, so they play an important role in preventing heart disease and stroke. They have also been shown to protect against cancer and may help in controlling conditions such as eczema, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.
The ratio in which we consume omegas is important. In our standard American diet, we often consume too many omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3s. This unbalanced consumption has been linked to diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune disorders.
Most people are familiar with fish oil as a type of omega-3 supplement. However, omega-3s are also found in vegetable oils, flaxseed oil, borage oil, nuts, and dark green, leafy vegetables.
There are some women who are at risk of not getting what they need through their diet and may need supplementation, such as the following:
- Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant. These women need to ensure that they are getting enough folate. This can help prevent miscarriage and neural tube defects in their baby. Foods that are rich in folate include broccoli, spinach, brussels sprouts, peas, citrus fruits, bananas, melons, and eggs. Pregnant women should also supplement with folate based on their healthcare provider’s recommendation.
- Post-menopausal women. Most women in this stage of life don’t get enough calcium and vitamin D to prevent osteoporosis. They may also need extra vitamin B-12.
- Vegetarians and Vegans. Sometimes, the vitamins we need come from animal products, so vegans and vegetarians may need to supplement, especially with vitamin B-12, vitamin B-2, and vitamin D.
Using dietary supplements can help fuel the essential processes that keep your body running. Work with your healthcare providers to make sure you are using the best supplements for your individual needs.
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