Every year in May we celebrate Women’s Health Month, which helps raise awareness about the unique health needs of women. I always say that women are like supercars and men are like a circa 1990’s Honda because our bodies are SO. Much. More. Complex. Our bodies are designed to grow humans after all! Because we are much more complex, we have different and sometimes greater nutritional needs than men do, and what works well for men doesn’t necessarily work for us.
Over the course of a woman's life, nutritional needs change. During pregnancy, for example, a woman may require additional B vitamins and iron. However, after menopause, women typically require less iron and they need more calcium and vitamin D.
Below are some of the most common nutrient deficiencies among women and the best food sources and supplements for each nutrient. Ideally we would get all the nutrients we need from real food, but that isn’t always possible and that’s when supplements can be helpful.
Vitamin D with K2
Wow, I could write an entire post on Vitamin D alone, but I’ll try to give you the short version here.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin involved in many body functions, including calcium absorption, bone formation, hormone regulation, brain and neuromuscular function, and immune health. It is so important that every single cell in the body has a receptor for Vitamin D.
Primarily obtained from sun exposure (without sunscreen), vitamin D is also found in certain foods such as eggs and dairy products making it necessary as a supplement for vegans and for dairy intolerant people like me. In northern climates (anywhere San Francisco and North - HELLO fellow Seattleites!) and due to a mostly indoor life, research is showing that we no longer get enough natural vitamin D from sunlight (the best source), so both men and women are at risk of deficiency. In fact, it is estimated that about 1/3 of Americans are Vitamin D deficient!
But if you’re going to supplement with Vitamin D, it is important to use one that also contains Vitamin K2 since they work together. One of vitamin D's main roles in the body is to maintain healthy levels of calcium in your blood, and Vitamin K makes sure the calcium ends up in your bones and doesn’t accumulate in soft tissues or cause blood vessels calcification. Research suggests that a high vitamin D intake may promote blood vessel calcification and heart disease among those who are low in vitamin K.
Vitamin D rich foods include: Cod liver oil, wild caught salmon, mackerel, sardines, liver, eggs, mushrooms, fortified milk and some fortified non-dairy milks.
Vitamin K2 rich foods include: Dark leafy greens, egg yolk, Brussels sprouts, scallions/green onion, broccoli, prunes, cucumbers, natto (fermented soy), basil and fermented dairy products.
Favorite Vitamin D supplements from my dispensary:
Vitamin D3 Complete by Allergy Research Group
Liposomal D Supreme by Designs for Health
The B vitamin group is made up of eight water-soluble vitamins that help regulate metabolism, prevent fatigue, and support mood and cognitive function. Vitamin B9, commonly known as folate or folic acid (the synthetic form), is an essential nutrient for the development of a fetus's spinal cord and brain during pregnancy and many doctors recommend supplementing folic acid, but folate is the non-synthetic, more bioavailable form recommended by most Functional Medicine doctors.
Older women, those with anemia, and vegans and vegetarians have the highest risk of deficiency. Lower levels of B6, B12, and folate have also been observed in women taking oral contraceptives. Many drugs rob the body of B vitamins Metformin (folate).
Our bodies use more B vitamins during times of elevated stress or physical demand. So if chronic stress is part of your life or if you’re an athlete or intense exercise junkie, you should get your levels checked by your doc.
B Vitamin Rich Foods Include: B vitamins - Meat, eggs, fish, and dairy products. Folate - Spinach and other leafy greens, beans, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts.
Top B-complex supplements from my dispensary:
Active B-Complex by Integrative Therapeutics
B12/Folate Plus™ by Biotics Research
Omega Fatty Acids
The two primary omega, or essential, fatty acids are omega-3 and omega-6, each with unique purposes in the body. Omega fatty acids support cardiovascular, immune, and cognitive function, and supplementing with omega-3s has been shown to increase the growth of brain cells, improve mood, enhance memory, and boost blood flow as you age.
Since omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids should be in relative balance, and due to modern diets being dominated by omega-6 containing foods like grains and refined oils, it’s typically recommended to consume an abundance of omega-3 containing foods or to take an omega-3 supplement. The daily recommended amount that women should consume is 1100 mg of omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega fatty acid-rich foods include: fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines, flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts for omega-3; and whole grains, nuts, and seeds for omega-6.
Top omega fatty acid supplements on Fullscript:
ProOmega 2000 by Nordic Naturals
OmegaGenics® EPA-DHA 720 by Metagenics
OmegaGenics® EPA-DHA 300 Algae by Metagenics (vegan)
Magnesium, one of the most common minerals in the body, is involved in hundreds of different biochemical functions. Magnesium deficiency is also one of the more common nutrient deficiencies and many pharmaceutical drugs will rob your body of magnesium. Signs of magnesium deficiency are widespread and include anxiety, muscle cramps or spasms, constipation, headaches, and insomnia. Magnesium deficiency may also cause PMS symptoms, and when taken with vitamin B6, may be effective in improving symptoms of PMS.
There are many forms of magnesium and it’s important to choose the form that’s right for you. If you tend towards constipation, magnesium citrate is a good option, and for neurological and brain support, magnesium threonate is best, but my favorite all-around performer is magnesium glycinate or bisglycinate.
Magnesium-rich foods include: Almonds, spinach, cashews, peanuts, cacao and black beans.
Top magnesium supplements from my dispensary:
Mag Glycinate by Metagenics
Magnesium 300 by Innate Response
NeuroMag by Designs for Health
Calcium is involved in several body functions, including nerve signaling, muscle function, maintenance of blood pressure, bone health, and cardiovascular function. Calcium deficiency is unfortunately very common in women, particularly after menopause when estrogen levels decrease and boss loss increases. Without sufficient Vitamin D it is difficult for the body to get the calcium it needs from the diet, so a D deficiency can also lead to calcium deficiency.
We’ve been told for decades that dairy products are the best source of calcium but this is not the case. There are many non-dairy foods that are rich in bioavailable forms of calcium which I list below, so if you’re dairy-free like me you can still get plenty of calcium in your diet.
Calcium Rich Foods Include: Cabbage or Brassica family vegetables including collard greens, cabbage, Chinese spinach, bok choy, broccoli, turnip greens, and mustard greens. Seaweed, fish with bones, sprouted beans, soaked almonds, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds, celery seeds and amaranth are also great sources.
Top calcium-containing supplements from my dispensary:
Bone Builder by Metagenics
Wholefood Calcium by Cytoplan
Iron is an essential mineral, necessary for the production of hemoglobin and oxygen transport within the body. Low iron levels and iron deficiency anemia are particularly common in female athletes, women with heavy menstruation, pregnant women, and women who do not consume animal products. If you are taking blood thinners such as aspirin, Plavix®, Coumadin®, or heparin, you are also at greater risk for iron deficiency.
It is important to make sure that you actually need iron before supplementing with it and to make sure that you do not have hemochromatosis. You also want to take iron away from calcium, coffee or tea since these can prevent iron from being absorbed. If you are vegan or vegetarian, eating iron-rich foods with vitamin-c rich foods like broccoli, tomatoes, or citrus fruit will increase your absorption.
Many people associate iron supplements with constipation, but this is easily avoided by taking a non-constipating form of iron such as iron bysglycinate.
Iron-Rich foods include: Oysters, kidney beans, beef liver, beef (chuck roast, lean ground beef), turkey leg, tuna, eggs, lamb, blackstrap molasses, lentils, beans, spinach, and organic tofu.
Top iron-containing supplements from my dispensary:
Iron Extra by Vitanica
Ferrasorb by Thorne
I hope you found this informative and helpful, and am wishing you a very happy and healthy spring!