Every year in May we celebrate Women’s Health Month, which helps raise awareness about the unique health needs of women. It turns out, we aren’t just small men! Our health concerns and nutritional needs are different, due to a wide variety of genetic, social, and anatomical reasons. This month I’m highlighting some of the most important nutrients for women’s 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. 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. Vitamin B9, commonly known as folate or folic acid, is an essential nutrient for the development of a fetus’s spinal cord and brain during pregnancy. Over 30% of your vitamin B6 is actually made by the beneficial bacteria in your gut! Eating lots of plant-based fiber keeps those bacteria thriving. High amounts of B vitamins are found primarily in animal products, such as meat, eggs, fish, and dairy products. Folate specifically may be found in spinach and other leafy greens, beans, asparagus, and brussels sprouts. Supplementation with a high-quality B complex can help with fatigue and energy concerns.
Magnesium, one of the most ubiquitous minerals in the body, is involved in hundreds of different biochemical functions. Magnesium deficiency is also one of the more common nutrient deficiencies. 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. Magnesium is also critical for good adrenal function, which can suffer due to our high stress lives. Magnesium-rich foods include almonds, spinach, cashews, peanuts, and black beans. However, due to soil depletion, most food contains far less magnesium today than it did 50 years ago. It’s recommended that women over 30 consume 320 mg of magnesium daily. For most women, a daily magnesium supplement is a great idea.
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. Low iron can also be due to undetected gut pathogens. The RDA for women under 50 is 18 mg per day. As women age, 8 mg per day is recommended due to the cessation of menstruation. Of note, you should not supplement with iron unless you have had a blood test that showed a significant need, as too much iron can be dangerous.
Omega Fatty Acids
Omega fatty acids support cardiovascular, immune, and cognitive function. They are also critical to the formation of healthy hormones and neurotransmitters. Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to increase the growth of brain cells, improve mood, enhance memory, and boost blood flow as you age. Because autoimmune diseases are becoming so common in women, immune-boosting omegas are a critical part of maintaining a low inflammation lifestyle and keeping the immune system in check. Dietary sources of omega fatty acids 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. 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, it’s typically recommended to consume an abundance of omega-3 containing foods or take an omega-3 supplement. About 2000 mg of omega-3 fatty acids daily is a good baseline for most women; more may be indicated with acute inflammation or immune issues.
Addressing the unique health needs of women is key to my practice. Contact me if you are concerned about your nutritional needs, or feel that your hormones may be behind your health issues. Let’s get to the bottom of it!