Vitamins are essential for overall health and ensuring that you get enough in the daily recommended intake (DRI) can often be a challenge. While it is easy to get the necessary quota with a healthy, balanced, diet, some women might still need vitamin supplements. Also, although there are common dietary recommendations for men and women, when it comes to vitamins, women’s needs are different.
Vitamins and micro nutrients are crucial for normal cell function, growth and development. The body cannot produce all these nutrients, which is why we have to turn to food to make sure we get them.
Many vitamins have similar functions. For example, both vitamins A and C are important for dental and soft tissue health. A majority of the B vitamins promote metabolic function and red blood cell production.
This article about vitamins and minerals, with a special focus on women, covers:
- Vitamins and minerals important for women’s health, why they are important and who may need it, along with the sources for each
- Whether you should take a vitamin or mineral supplement
- Whether dietary supplements are safe
Vitamins and minerals for women
To maintain good health, the body requires vitamins and minerals. Each vitamin and mineral has a specific function with specific benefits. As mentioned earlier, since women’s needs are different from men’s, they need more of some vitamins and minerals than men do.
What vitamins and minerals are important for women’s health?
Of course, all vitamins and minerals are essential for good health. They work together in the body most of the time and the ideal way to get them is through various food groups. So it makes sense to fill your plate with fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, and a variety of protein foods and build a healthy plate.
Folic acid/folate (Vitamin B9)
Folic acid/folate helps:
- the body make blood cells
- make DNA for new cells
- prevent certain birth defects called neural tube defects, which are likely in the first three months of pregnancy
- prevent premature births and low birth weight
Women who are planning a pregnancy or already pregnant must get 400-800 mcg of folic acid daily from dietary supplements or fortified foods such as breakfast cereals. Most prenatal vitamins come with this amount. Since pregnancy can also be unplanned, it is best to ensure that you get enough folic acid.
Sources of folic acid/folate
Spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables, oranges and pure orange juice, nuts, beans, chicken, lean beef, whole grains, and cereals fortified with folic acid
Vitamin B12 helps
- the body make red blood cells
- proper functioning of neurons (cells in your brain and nervous system)
It is likely that you are not getting enough B12 and may need a B12 supplement, especially in the following situations:
You are pregnant
Vitamin B12 is crucial for the fetus’s development and a deficiency can lead to low birth weight and other health issues.
You are a vegetarian
Since B12 is mostly sourced from animal products, you will need a supplement to ensure you get your required quota. If your baby is exclusively on breastmilk, get your doctor’s advice as baby may need a supplement too.
50 years or older
With gaining comes the problem of the inability to absorb Vitamin B12 as well as it should be, hence adequate quantity of Vitamin B12 may need to be supplemented via fortified foods or supplements as that is easier to absorb.
Sources of Vitamin B12
Low-fat or fat-free milk, eggs, liver, poultry, clams, sardines, flounder, herring, blue cheese, nutritional yeast, and foods fortified with vitamin B12; this includes some cereals, fortified soy beverages, and veggie burgers
Vitamin D is crucial for the following reasons:
- It combines with calcium to strengthen bones and prevents osteoporosis
- It reduces inflammation in cells
- Helps the immune system fight off germs that cause sickness
Vitamin D is especially important for women who:
- Do not get enough sunlight (those who are homebound or located where there isn’t enough sunshine)
- Are post-menopausal
- Are obese
- Suffer from inflammatory bowel disease or any other disease that makes it harder for the gut to absorb fat (vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning it has to be absorbed by the gut)
- Have had gastric bypass surgery (weight loss surgery)
Discuss with your doctor about what to do if you are not getting enough Vitamin D. You may be asked to take tests to check for vitamin D deficiency.
Sources of Vitamin D
Fish like tuna and salmon, and fortified foods (low-fat or fat-free milk and some brands of orange juice, cereals, soy beverages, and yogurt)
We need calcium as it:
- Helps protect and build strong bones and reduce the risk of osteoporosis. The body stores calcium in the bones. When enough calcium is not obtained through food the body takes calcium from the bones, making them weak and break easily.
- Helps transmit messages between your brain and muscles
Calcium is necessary:
- For girls ages 9 to 18 who need 1,300 milligrams (mg) of calcium each day. During this time, bones absorb calcium and build strong bones for adulthood and older age.
- For adult women who need 1,000 mg of calcium each day.
- After menopause, when you need 1,200 mg of calcium each day to help slow the bone loss that comes with aging.
Sources of Calcium:
Low-fat or fat-free yogurt, cheese, and milk; foods fortified with calcium, such as some soy beverages, 100% orange juice, tofu, and cereals; canned salmon; and dark green leafy vegetables
Iron is necessary for:
- Building healthy blood cells that carry oxygen in your body
- Helping to make certain hormones and connective tissue in your body
Women need iron when:
- They have menstrual periods. Iron is lost during monthly periods.
- They are pregnant as the requirement of iron is more during this time to enable them supply enough blood for their growing babies.
Many women, especially pregnant women, do not get enough iron from food alone. This puts them at risk for iron-deficiency anemia which means the heart must work harder to pump blood to send oxygen to all parts of the body. Anemia causes fatigue, weakness, and dizziness.
The quota of iron required, age wise is as follows:
- Ages 19 to 50: 18 mg
- During pregnancy: 27 mg
- Ages 51 and older: 8 mg
Sources of iron
Lean red meats and chicken, seafood, cereals/breads fortified with iron, oysters, beans, dark chocolate, liver, spinach, tofu, and canned tomatoes.
Do I need a vitamin or mineral supplement?
Most women usually do not need a vitamin or mineral supplement as they might get most of the nutrients required via a healthy diet. However, there are three groups of women who might need a supplement:
- Women who are pregnant or are planning a pregnancy
A supplement gives them the folic acid they require to reduce the risk of birth defects such as spina bifida. The supplement should have at least 400 mcg of folic acid.
- Postmenopausal women
After menopause there is a loss in bone density due to hormonal changes. This is at a higher rate than for men. Women often do not get enough calcium and vitamin D from the food they eat. Calcium and Vitamin D combined with weight bearing exercise can help prevent osteoporosis. Supplements that contain vitamin B12 may also be needed.
While some vitamins can be sourced through animal products more easily than through plant sources—for example—vitamin B12 (animal products including eggs and dairy)—they can also be sourced through plant products. Vegans, in particular may not get enough Vitamin B2 (riboflavin), B12 and D via food alone. Discuss your options with your doctor to see whether you need a supplement and if yes, how much.
This brings us to a critical question: are dietary supplements safe?
Most dietary supplements are safe, especially if recommended by your doctor. While the FDA regulates both finished dietary supplement products and dietary ingredients, it regulates dietary supplements under a different set of regulations than those covering “conventional” foods and drug products. Also, the FDA is authorized to pull products from the market if they find them unsafe or making false claims, or if they contain unsafe ingredients.
If you need to take a dietary supplement, do talk to your doctor, especially as some of these can cause side effects when taken along with your existing prescription medication.
Keep the following points in mind:
- Certain supplements can interact with prescription medicine such as blood thinners, interfering with the way they should work, causing health issues.
- A herbal supplement called St.John’s wort taken for treating minor depression can break down in the body faster than they should, reducing their action. This is true of birth control pills.
- High doses of more than 3000 mcg or 10000 international units (IU) of Vitamin A are likely to cause birth defects, bone loss, and liver damage.
So, ladies, get your vitamins and minerals preferably through food and if you have to take a supplement, consult your doctor and be very sure of what you are taking.