Key Nutrients for Women’s Health
A noted nutritionist’s advice on what helps women stay healthy
Q: Do women have special nutritional needs? Is it useful to take a daily multivitamin?
A: Although women do indeed have their own gender-specific issues, women and men have many common goals as well. For instance, we all want to maintain a healthy heart, strong bones, supple joints, and the basic vitality we need to support an active lifestyle and long life. In the past, physicians and nutritional experts would often say that if you eat right, you don’t need supplements. Today, given the imbalances and deficiencies that are now so common in the American diet, there’s more recognition by doctors, nutritional experts, and even government agencies that supplements can play an important role in evening out nutritional shortfalls and supporting overall health*.1 For this reason, I think a daily high-quality multivitamin with a broad range of vitamins and minerals is an excellent idea for all women.
Q: Is there a downside to taking a daily multivitamin?
A: The biggest danger is actually an indirect one. Sometimes people can get lulled into a false sense of security. Even the best multivitamin can’t confer the overall health benefits provided by a well-balanced, varied diet. Among other things, this includes getting adequate fiber, consuming different phytochemicals, and keeping your calorie intake in line.
Q: Are there particular nutrients women tend to lack?
A: Calcium is always problematic. Studies suggest some women may also be prone to what’s termed a “marginal deficiency” in vitamin D, zinc, and copper.2,3,4 All of these can affect bone integrity, a major issue in women’s health.* At present, we don’t know exactly when a lower than normal level of one of these nutrients will impact bone health.* Initial studies suggest women can improve their bone health by increasing their intake of these nutrients.*5 Younger women can also be deficient in iron because of blood loss during menstruation. This can lead to a lack of energy. Unfortunately, iron supplements are not as well absorbed as iron-rich foods, so women taking supplements should also pay attention to their dietary intake of iron.
Q: Heart health is a major issue for women. What nutrients can help?
A: After menopause, when the protective power of estrogen is reduced, a woman’s risk of heart health decline increases significantly. Cardiovascular health, however, remains a complex issue. Of particular interest to researchers now are three B vitamins (B6, B12, and folic acid) that appear to reduce blood levels of an amino acid-like compound called homocysteine.* High levels of homocysteine may negatively impact heart health.6 The minerals chromium and copper may also be important for maintaining a healthy heart.*7,8
Q: Which nutrients will help improve the appearance of the skin, hair, and nails?
A: There is speculation that subtle deficiencies of certain nutrients may contribute to such signs of skin aging as wrinkling or age spots. More research, however, is really needed to determine how important these considerations are. Research does indicate, however, that antioxidant vitamins can help protect the skin.* Regular use of vitamin C also indirectly promotes the production of collagen (a fibrous protein that constitutes the body’s main supportive and connective tissues), which is important for good skin tone.* Research also shows that vitamin A, often delivered as mixed carotenoids, is vital for healthy skin.* Vitamin E appears to be protective too, although its exact relationship to skin appearance is not fully understood.*9 If low levels of biotin, one of the lesser-known B vitamins, occur, problems such as brittle nails and lackluster hair can develop. Two interesting studies, for instance, found that women with brittle nails who took biotin supplements showed an overall improvement in their nail quality.*10,11
Q: Can certain nutrients or herbs help increase vitality and boost energy levels?
A: A number of B vitamins are essential for energy release within the body.* And studies suggest that increased intakes of certain B vitamins will help certain women.* Riboflavin (vitamin B2) is a good example. This water-soluble vitamin is involved in transforming protein, fats, and carbohydrates into fuel for the body.* Its status in both younger and older women, however, seems to be poorer during periods of moderate exercise, dieting, and dieting plus exercise. In such cases, riboflavin supplementation helps improve aerobic exercise performance.*12
Robert DiSilvestro, Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Human Nutrition at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.