A: Nicole, thanks for your question. And we are right there with you. Nutrition, not to mention supplementation, can be a confusing subject with lots of contradictory and overwhelming advice. Eat this, don’t eat that. Get enough ‘X’ but not too much ‘Y.’
It seems like there’s a new headline every day with a recommendation for what food to eat (or what vitamins should women take) and what to avoid. And to add to the frustration, it seems like those headlines are constantly changing. Ah, the beauty of nutrition science and the Internet.
We need key vitamins, minerals, amino acids, probiotics, and phytonutrients (just to start). And it can be difficult to get everything we need from our diets.
Of course, the first step is eating a nutrient-dense diet that’s filled with a variety of whole foods, like colorful vegetables (three to four servings per day) and fruits (two servings per day), quality proteins, healthy fats, and fibrous, slow-digesting carbohydrates. In addition to focusing on the good stuff, it’s also important to avoid the junk foods that lack nutrition and seem to make up for it with an overabundance of calories.
Yet even if you’re following a healthy diet, it’s a good idea to invest in a nutrition insurance policy by providing your body with a high-quality multivitamin that contains vitamins A, C, D, and E as well as bioactive forms of B vitamins (such as l-methylfolate and methylcobalamin).
Look for one that also provides some of the minerals that many of us lack such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Even the Journal of the American Medical Association (which isn’t always a big supporter of supplements) suggests taking a daily multivitamin is a good idea.1
What Vitamins Should Women Take?
Many of us have concerningly low levels of Vitamin D, or “the sunshine vitamin,” for optimal health. It is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies with up to 42% of adults being deficient and over 75% of people having insufficient levels. Deficiencies are especially common in women, the elderly, and those who have dark skin complexions.
It’s well known that vitamin D is vital for bone health and a healthy immune system. Every cell within our bodies has receptors for vitamin D, and a deficiency can cause:
- Muscle weakness
- Bone loss
- Increased risk of fractures
- High blood pressure
- Thyroid issues
- Delays in growth
- Rickets (in which bones become soft) with severe deficiency in children
The only natural dietary sources are some mushrooms (for vitamin D2) and fatty fish and egg yolks (for vitamin D3). Our bodies, however, are able to create vitamin D with the help of the sun.
While recommendations vary based on skin type, time of year, time of day, and latitude (i.e., proximity to the sun), the research indicates that spending about 15 minutes 2 – 3 times a week between 11 am and 3 pm during the months of May through October with about 40% of the skin exposed (e.g., face, arms, and legs) for most people (with even less for people who have very fair skin and a bit more for those with darker complexions) is adequate to obtain sufficient levels of vitamin D.
Many researchers also recommend additional supplementation with between 1,000 and 4,000 IU/day of vitamin D. Of course, it’s a good idea to get blood work done to see where your levels of vitamin D are.
Another answer to “what vitamins should women take?” is vitamin B12, or cobalamin. This water-soluble vitamin is essential for forming red blood cells and DNA and is necessary for the nervous system.
A deficiency in vitamin B12 can cause:
- Jaundiced skin
- Fatigue and muscle weakness3
- Nerve issues (such as a feeling of being on pins and needles), which can affect balance and coordination4
- Red, swollen lips and tongue and bleeding gums5
- Blurred vision6
- Depression7 and dementia 8
Vitamin B12 can be found in animal foods like meats, poultry, fish, shellfish, dairy, and eggs. Yet many are deficient in this critical vitamin because they avoid these foods (such as vegans) or reduce consumption (vegetarians or those who limit animal foods). On top of that, our ability to absorb B12 declines as we age. The National Institutes of Health 9 (NIH) recommends 2.4 mcg for adults. Typical recommendations for supplements are 25 to 100 mcg per day combined with a full spectrum of the B vitamins, especially folate and B6 (pyridoxine), as well as biotin, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin.
What Minerals Should Women Take?
You mentioned magnesium, and this is an especially important mineral for women over 40 as it is necessary for strong bones. It also helps regulate both blood sugar and blood pressure, and it’s needed for energy metabolism, protein synthesis, and overall health.20
It’s found in leafy green vegetables (such as spinach), legumes, nuts, seeds, milk products, and whole grains.9 Yet it’s pretty common to consume less than you need. In addition, those with high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and alcoholism are at a higher risk for deficiency.
The recommended daily allowance for women over 40 is 320 mg. Yet if you’re using magnesium to address a specific issue, higher amounts may be needed.
Supplementation with magnesium, for example, has been shown to help:
- Improve sleep (414 mg of magnesium oxide 2 times a day)10
- Reduce muscle cramps (300 mg of magnesium daily)11
- Support healthy blood sugar (2,500 mg of magnesium chloride)12
- Improve mood (248 to 450 mg of magnesium chloride)13, 14
- Ease acute constipation (2 tablespoons of milk of magnesia or magnesium hydroxide to start and increasing up to 4 tablespoons if needed or 240 ml of magnesium citrate)15
- Improve exercise performance (350 mg per day)16
It’s important to note that high amounts of certain forms of magnesium can lead to issues like diarrhea, nausea, and cramping as well as interact with some medications. As always, it’s best to consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner if you are taking any medications, have been diagnosed with any medical condition, and/or experience any negative side effects.
Calcium is another mineral that’s important to ensure you get enough of as it’s necessary for strong, healthy bones, teeth, and muscles as well as healthy, properly functioning heart and nerves. In addition, calcium may help:
- Prevent bone loss in women who have reached menopause (1,000 mg per day)17
- Support fat loss (600 mg per day with 125 IUs of Vitamin D)18
- Support healthy blood pressure19
You can get calcium from dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese (preferably organic, grass-fed), salmon and sardines (with bones), as well as beans and lentils, leafy greens (like spinach, kale, and collard greens), and almonds.
Strive to get 1,000 mg per day since you’re under 50 and increase up to 1,200 mg per day once you hit 50. But don’t consume more than 2,000 mg to 2,500 mg per day as too much calcium has been linked to health problems such as stomach pain and nausea, irritability, and increased risk of kidney stones. And like magnesium, it may also interact with medications, so check with your doctor if you are taking any prescriptions.
Your body is also only able to absorb so much calcium at one time, so don’t consume more than 500 mg at once. And be careful taking calcium with zinc, iron, or magnesium they can compete for absorption. It’s also mission-critical to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin K, which is essential for the body to properly utilize calcium. In fact, some of the negative side effects of “too much calcium” may actually be the result of “too little vitamin K.”
Many of us get enough calcium through dietary sources, but those who follow a vegan diet, eat a high-protein diet, have digestive issues, have reached menopause, are being treated with corticosteroids, or have been diagnosed with osteoporosis are more likely to benefit from supplementation.
What Vitamins Should Women Take: A Recap
There is not a clear cut answer to the question: “what vitamins should women take?”. Your vitamin and mineral needs may differ depending on what and how you eat and how active you are, and they can change as you age, Nicole. Starting with a nutrient-rich diet that provides a wide range of colorful vegetables and fruits, quality proteins, and healthy fats is the best start, followed by using a high-quality multivitamin formula.
If you still find your energy levels are low, then you may want to reach out to a functional healthcare practitioner to help you discover what nutrients might be missing from your diet.