How often did your mom tell you to “Take your vitamins!” when you were a kid while shoving a bottle of Flintstones’ gummies in your face?
Of course, by now you know by now that your body needs vitamins and minerals to stay healthy and strong.
You probably also know that most experts agree that whole foods (not gummy vitamins) are the best source of essential nutrients: “We get a wide variety of nutrients from eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats,” says Keri Glassman, registered dietician and Women’s Health nutrition expert.
That being said, it’s difficult to know with 100 percent certainty if you’re eating precisely enough nutrients to fend off symptoms of deficiency or illness.
Plus, things get even more confusing when you, say, decide to go vegetarian or get pregnant.
These are the best vitamins for women, according to nutritionists (but if you’re super-concerned about a deficiency, chat with your dietitian or doctor about whether you should make a lifestyle change or consider a supplement):
What it does: Iron carries oxygen in the body; aids in the production of red blood cells; supports immune function, cognitive development, and temperature regulation; is essential for proper cell growth.
Why you need it: Slacking on your iron intake causes your body to reduce the production of red blood cells, causing anaemia. This can lead to fatigue, shortness of breath, as well as decreased immune function. What’s more, blood loss during your period depletes your body’s iron stores, so it’s particularly important for women with heavy periods to eat iron-rich foods or take supplements, says Carol Haggans, a registered dietician and consultant for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Be sure to get 18 mg of iron daily, recommends NIH.
Where to find it: Dark-green leafy vegetables, lean red meat, chicken, turkey, fish, cereals, beans, and whole grains. Eat these foods with a vitamin C food, to help your body absorb the iron, says Haggans.
What it does: Calcium makes and keeps your bones and teeth strong, and helps muscles function.
Why you need it: Calcium is one of the best vitamins for women, because your body needs it for optimal bone health. “Women start losing bone density in their twenties,” says Dr Mary Ellen Camire, a nutrition professor at the University of Maine at Orono. “Calcium is your single best defence, and you should start getting plenty of it now.” The NIH recommends eating 1,000 mg a day.
Where to find it: Dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yoghurt. Plus, dark-green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and kale.
What it does: Magnesium maintains normal muscle and nerve function, keeps your heart rhythm steady, supports a healthy immune system, keeps bones strong, helps regulate blood sugar levels, and promotes normal blood pressure.
Why you need it: Magnesium is necessary for more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body. And a deficiency could lead to chronic or excessive vomiting, diarrhoea, and migraines. If you suffer from Crohn’s disease or another gastrointestinal disorder that makes it difficult for your body to absorb nutrients, you may be at risk for magnesium deficiency. Opt for 310 to 320 mg a day, according to NIH.
Where to find it: Green vegetables like okra, some beans, nuts, seeds, and unrefined whole grains.
What it does: Vitamin A ensures proper development and function of your eyes, skin, immune system, and many other parts of your body.
Why you need it: Vitamin A makes the list of best vitamins for women, since it plays a vital role in vision support. Research also suggests that vitamin A may prevent some types of cancer, and improve immune function, says Glassman. The NIH recommends getting 700 mcg RAE of vitamin A daily (you’d get that in about half a sweet potato or a little more than half a cup of spinach.)
Where to find it: Leafy green vegetables, orange and yellow vegetables (especially sweet potatoes and carrots), tomatoes, fruits, dairy products, liver, fish, and fortified cereals. Vitamin A is also available in multivitamins and stand-alone supplements.
What it does: Folate produces and maintains new cells, including red blood cells, and it’s necessary for proper brain function.
Why you need it: Folate, which is a B vitamin, is crucial for preventing anaemia, since it produces new blood cells in your body. Not getting ample folate can also lead to serious problems, like an increased risk of cervical, colon, brain, and lung cancer. And folate is especially important during pregnancy – in fact, 50 to 75 percent of serious birth defects may be prevented by getting enough folic acid just before and throughout the first month of pregnancy, according to the CDC.
The daily recommended amount is 400 micrograms, but this need increases to 600 micrograms for pregnant women and 500 micrograms for those lactating.
Where to find it: Leafy green vegetables, avocados, beans, eggs, and peanuts. The synthetic form of folate (folic acid) is found in supplements and often added to enriched cereals, breads, pastas, and rice.
What it does: Biotin aids in the formation of fatty acids and blood sugar, which are used for energy production in the body. Plus, it helps metabolise amino acids and carbohydrates.
Why you need it: While a lack of biotin is rare, getting sufficient amounts staves off signs of deficiency including hair loss, brittle nails, and a scaly, red facial rash. The NIH recommends that women 19 and older get 30 mcg of biotin daily.
Biotin supplements are also sometimes prescribed by doctors for other reasons too, like easing multiple sclerosis symptoms, reducing diabetes-related nerve damage, or aiding growth and development during pregnancy, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Where to find it: Cauliflower, liver, sweet potato, almonds, avocado, seeds, eggs, milk, grains, raspberries.
What it does: Vitamins like B6 and B12 help the body to convert food into fuel for energy. They also contribute to healthy skin, hair, and eyes. Plus, they maintain proper nervous system functioning, metabolism, muscle tone, and a sharp mind.
Why you need it: Deficiency of certain B vitamins, can cause a host of awful symptoms. According to Glassman, it can cause anaemia, tiredness, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, depression, numbness and tingling in the arms and legs, muscle cramps, respiratory infections, hair loss, eczema, poor development in children, and birth defects. You should get 2.4 mcg of B12 and 1.6 mcg of B6, according to NIH.
Where to find it: Fish, poultry, meat, eggs, dairy products, leafy green vegetables, legumes, many cereals, and some breads.
What it does: Facilitates normal growth and development and repairs bodily tissues, bones, and teeth. It functions as an antioxidant to block some of the damage caused by free radicals.
Why you need it: Vitamin C’s healing and antioxidant powers make it essential. Signs of vitamin deficiency include dry and splitting hair; gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) and bleeding gums; rough, dry, scaly skin; decreased wound-healing rate; easy bruising; nosebleeds; and a decreased ability to fight infection. Women over 19 need 75 mg vitamin C daily, according to NIH.
Despite its rep as a cold fighter, C has never been proven to prevent or cure the sniffles, but the antioxidant is believed to boost your immune system. Palinski-Wade says this is attributed to vitamin C’s ability to reduce stress, which in turn, boosts the immune system.
It is also often used as an ingredient in skincare products since vitamin C can help your body produce collagen – an important protein used to make skin, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and blood vessels.
Where to find it: All fruits and vegetables, particularly citrus fruits, red pepper, and broccoli.
What it does: Promotes bone growth, cell growth, neuromuscular and immune function. It also helps reduce inflammation.
Why you need it: Without sufficient vitamin D, bones can become thin, brittle, or misshapen, leading to osteomalacia, or a softening of the bones, which can weaken muscles, too. Vitamin D deficiency has also been shown to play a role in the development of type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
The good news: Evidence suggests that vitamin D may provide some protection against colorectal and possibly other cancers, according to Glassman. You should be getting 15 mcg vitamin D on a daily basis, recommends NIH.
Where to find it: Flesh of fatty fish, such as salmon and tuna, and fish liver oils, with small amounts in beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks. Many people also meet at least some of their vitamin D needs through exposure to sunlight – so if you live somewhere where sunny days are rare, you may want to consider eating extra vitamin D-rich foods, or try a supplement.
What it does: Omega-3 assists in proper brain operation (like brain memory and performance) and behavioural function, helps reduce high blood pressure and calms inflammation.
Why you need it: Research shows that since omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation, they may help lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and other joint problems. What’s more, studies have found that those who ate more fish high in omega-3 fatty acids were less likely to have macular degeneration (a condition that steals your central vision) than those who ate less fish, according to Glassman. Aim for 1.1g of omega-3s daily, advises NIH.
Where to find it: Fish – particularly fatty fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, and mackerel – and plants and nut oils. (Fish oil capsules are also a great option if you’re not a fan of eating seafood, but take less than three grams a day since fish oil can thin your blood, says Glassman.)
What it does: Aids in digestion, helps promote gut health, fights off disease-causing bacteria, can reduce diarrhoea caused by certain infections and irritable bowel syndrome.
Why you need it: Since the mid-1990s, clinical studies have established that probiotic therapy can help treat a number of ills, including diarrhoea, vaginal yeast and urinary tract infections, irritable bowel syndrome, and certain intestinal infections, says Glassman. There’s no recommended dose of probiotics, but adding probiotic-filled foods into your diet may help reap these natural benefits.
Where to find it: Yogurt is the most classic example. But there are plenty of other probiotic foods like kombucha, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, pickles, and fermented cheese.
What it does: Promotes healthy bowels, lowers the risk of heart disease by reducing LDL cholesterol levels, helps you feel full, and promotes weight loss.
Why you need it: According to Palinski-Wade, fibre is incredibly beneficial for a variety of health reasons, and most women fall short on consuming enough of the vitamin. Chief among them is that adequate fibre intake (25 grams a day for women) can control blood sugar levels by slowing down the rate of sugar absorption. This process can help ward off type 2 diabetes. You should eat around 30 g of fibre per day—but if your intake is significantly less than that now, increase your daily intake by 5 g until you get there.
Where to find it: Plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, grains and legumes contain hearty doses of fibre. Keep in mind that fibre-enriched supplements, which contain bowel-stimulating ingredients like wheat dextrin and psyllium husk respectively, do not contain other essential nutrients, so it’s best to consume whole foods.
What it does: Reduces allergy risk, and thus inflammation, improves the immune system and increases calcium absorption.
Why you need it: Unlike probiotics, which add good bacteria to your gut, prebiotics nourish and fuel the existing bacteria in your digestive tract. Research from the journal Nutrients found that the risk of colorectal cancer is lower in those who consume more inulin and oligofructose, two powerful prebiotics. They also experienced fewer upper respiratory infections, atopic dermatitis (known as eczema) and cases of wheezing. Similar to probiotics, there’s no specific recommended daily intake of prebiotics.
Where to find it: There are a number of prebiotic foods, like walnuts, dark chocolate, lentils, leeks, and apples. Also, beta-glucans found in many grains like oats and barley.
What it does: Helps regulate other hormones; maintains the body’s circadian rhythm, an internal 24-hour clock that plays a critical role in when we fall asleep and wake up; helps control the timing and release of female reproductive hormones (determining when a woman starts to menstruate, the frequency and duration of menstrual cycles, and when a woman stops menstruating, i.e. starts menopause).
Why you need it: Melatonin is considered one of the best vitamins for women as it plays a large role in regulating your sleep schedule. When it gets dark at night, a nerve pathway in your eye sends a signal to the brain to tell the pineal gland to start secreting melatonin, which makes you sleepy. Low levels of melatonin—along with screwing up up Zzzs – can also increase your risk for breast cancer, explains Palinski-Wade.
Where to find it: Tablets, capsules, creams, and lozenges. (There is currently no recommended dose for melatonin supplements but the best approach is, to begin with a very low dose – about 200 mcg). Even better, though, is to eat nutrients like magnesium (spinach), tryptophan (eggs), which increase the body’s own production of melatonin, says Palinski-Wade. Relying on supplemental melatonin can impact the body from producing it naturally.
What it does: Defends against toxins and foreign substances, and develops T-cells, which help fight off viruses. Zinc helps with blood clotting, taste perception, and keeps your blood sugar stable.
Why you need it: Because zinc is essential for developing T-cells, it plays a major role in keeping your immune system running smoothly—including fighting off virus-infected and cancerous cells. Since it interacts with blood platelets to help with blood clotting, zinc is crucial for helping cuts and scrapes heal properly. It also plays a role in maintaining healthy digestion and metabolism.
That said, zinc is a trace mineral, meaning you only need a small amount to avoid zinc deficiency. “Women 19 years and older need eight milligrams of zinc daily, a pregnant woman needs 11 milligrams, and a breastfeeding woman needs 12 milligrams,” says Amy Gorin, a registered dietician.
Where to find it: Zinc-rich foods include legumes, oysters, nuts, and seeds. Just keep in mind, “since you need so little zinc, it’s easy to overdose and see negative effects,” says Bontempo. So talk to your doctor before trying a supplement.
This article was originally published on www.womenshealthsa.co.za
Image credit: iStock