The Western diet has done no services for women’s health. A large percentage of women in the U.S., for instance, suffer from deficiencies of common nutrients—vitamins and minerals that are essential for the proper functioning of our bodies. By eating a diet low in fiber and high in refined sugars and fats, we, as a society, have made ourselves more susceptible to many chronic conditions, diseases, and illnesses that could be easily prevented.
The First Step: a Diet Revolution
The first step to getting the nutrients we need is to change the way we eat. Taking natural supplements cannot compensate for a consistently poor diet full of refined sugars and flours, junk food, and processed foods.
To get a variety of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other nutrient building blocks, focus on eating nutrient-dense foods. Plants such as whole fruits and vegetables, and plant-based foods such as whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, provide a wide range of necessary nutrients. Plants also provide plenty of soluble and insoluble fiber to feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut; these bacteria break down the fiber we eat and create vitamins (such as two of the B vitamins and vitamin K) as by-products. Add lean meats and dairy (organic free-range, as much as possible) to get nutrients only available from animal sources.
By eating a whole foods diet, you get your nutrients in the most bioavailable way possible, meaning that your body can utilize the nutrients most efficiently. What’s more, consuming nutrients in this natural state allows those nutrients to work together for the greatest possible benefit to your body.
But even eating a nutrient-dense diet might not always provide sufficient amounts of certain nutrients. Modern agricultural practices have depleted the soil of many minerals, which means the foods we eat contain less nutrition than in past decades.
The following supplements provide a boost in vitamins and minerals that women, especially, tend to be deficient in.
Up to 80% of American adults may be deficient in magnesium, and that’s a problem. Magnesium is necessary for 300 biochemical functions in the body, and a lack of magnesium is felt in increasing fatigue, muscle aches and cramps, sleep troubles, depression, migraine headaches, and more.
A magnesium deficiency over time also leads to depletion of other vitamins and minerals, including calcium, potassium, vitamin K, and vitamin B1.
Your body doesn’t need large amounts of magnesium, but it needs magnesium regularly. The NIH recommends women ages 19 and up take between 310 mg and 320 mg per day—more for pregnant women (to see the NIH’s chart, click here).
The most common magnesium supplementation comes in the form of magnesium chloride or magnesium sulphate oils (used transdermally) or capsules that most often contain magnesium oxide and/or magnesium citrate. Take quality magnesium supplements from a supplier you trust in order to get the most bioavailable types of magnesium.
Vitamin B-12 and B-Complex
The human body can only produce two of the B vitamins in the intestine (biotin, or B7, and pantothenic acid, or B5), but the rest must come from the foods you eat.
B vitamins, like all vitamins, act as catalysts in the body for important cellular functions. B vitamins, in general, help boost energy production; and vitamin B12, in particular, promotes healthy blood and nerve cells and also factors into the production of DNA.
While you probably get enough B12 through your diet (assuming you eat some animal protein sources), your body may not be able to absorb it in adequate amounts, and this is increasingly true as you age. While you change your eating habits to promote a healthy gut that is better able to absorb nutrients like B12 and other B vitamins (see our posts about gut health and the microbiome), it’s a good idea to take a quality supplement, such as a liquid B12 you hold under your tongue for quick absorption or a B complex that includes all the B vitamins and aids in B12 absorption.
All the B vitamins are water soluble, meaning that they stay in the body for a while before being flushed out through the urine. They need to be ingested regularly through food or supplements.
Calcium not only promotes strong bones and teeth, but calcium is also vital to healthy nerve and muscle function throughout the body. Your body’s calcium manager keeps calcium levels at a constant, utilizing other vitamins and hormones to increase or decrease absorption of the mineral through the intestines as needed.
When you don’t get enough calcium over time, your body will start robbing your bones and teeth of calcium, which can lead to osteoporosis. Not getting enough calcium may be because of the lack of calcium in your diet or because your intestinal absorption is faulty, but it can also result from lack of other companion vitamins, like vitamin D, which is used by your body to increase absorption of calcium through the intestines.
In other cases, you might have enough calcium, but your body is lacking the capacity to use it what it needs, which can lead to high levels of calcium in the blood, or hypercalcemia. Hypercalcemia can, ironically, cause symptoms that are similar to or identical to a calcium deficiency, and this is yet another sign that you are deficient in calcium’s companion vitamins. Therefore, it is not enough to just take a calcium supplement; you need to make sure you are also getting companion vitamins to optimize calcium use and absorption. Calcium and vitamin D work together, as do calcium and magnesium in maintaining proper blood calcium and phosphorous levels.
We’ve already seen that vitamin D is necessary in allowing the body to absorb and use calcium. To hammer that point home, it’s important to understand that no matter how much calcium you get, your body cannot use it if it doesn’t have enough vitamin D.
Vitamin D is also a steroid hormone precursor, and vitamin D deficiency has been linked to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease, osteoporosis, and more.
Your body actually produces its own vitamin D as sunlight interacts with cholesterols on your skin. Getting outside and being exposed to sunlight (without sunscreen) for 20 or so minutes a day can boost mood levels as well as promote vitamin D production; in fact, a lack of sunshine (and a drop in vitamin D production) in the winter months has been linked to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The darker your skin, the more sunlight exposure you need (up to 25 times more exposure compared to light-skinned people).
There may be a link in the rise in depression and the increasing use of sunscreen, only because sunscreen blocks the types of rays that allow your body to produce vitamin D. You also cannot absorb the full spectrum of the sun’s rays through glass, so you can’t count sitting in the sun in your air-conditioned car or in your home as true sun exposure.
If you do not want to be exposed to sunlight without using sunscreen—or getting outside is difficult for you, or your doctor has determined that your vitamin D levels are low—taking a vitamin D supplement is advisable in order to make sure your body can absorb and use calcium, stave off depression, and avoid the other problems associated with vitamin D deficiency.
As a supplement, choose vitamin D in D3 form, as this is the bioactive form of vitamin D that is created and used by the body.
The best way to get all the nutrients you need is through your diet. Eating a diet packed with whole fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes, and that includes some meat and dairy should, in theory, provide you with all the vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that will keep you in optimum health.
Unfortunately, modern agricultural practices have depleted growing soils of their wide range of minerals. The combination of nutrient-depleted food, the easy availability of refined and processed foods, and the growing inability of many people to absorb nutrients through the gut means that taking supplements might be necessary.
In this article, we have discussed some of the most common vitamin and mineral deficiencies for women (magnesium, vitamin B12 and the complex of B vitamins, calcium, and vitamin D) and how to safely supplement these nutrients to promote better health.