Nutritional Support for Women
A good, wholesome, well-balanced diet provides a spectrum of vitamins and minerals in addition to the basics of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Even when eating well, a quality multi-vitamin formula can act as a nutritional insurance policy. Other beneficial nutrients may be difficult to obtain from food sources alone. The following list provides details on many important nutrients. Check out the ones appropriate for everyone and then look over the additional needs for your specific age group.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
These are "essential" fatty acids, meaning the body does not make these necessary fats on its own so you must get them from the food you eat.
Omega-3s provide many wonderful benefits including the promotion of mental1 and immune health, and they can also be good for your heart. Researchers have found that those who consume fatty fish one or more times a week have a lower risk of having a fatal heart attack.2
Two important Omega-3 fatty acids include DHA (docosahexanoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), both of which are found in fatty cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna. Another Omega-3 fat, called ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is found in dark leafy greens, flax seed oil, and walnuts. Consider supplementing if fish or flax seed is not a regular part of your diet.
Antioxidants are becoming popular as more and more research points to their ability to protect your body against damage from free radicals (unstable oxygen molecules). Every day, people are exposed to free radicals from such varied sources as air pollution, sunlight, smoking, exercise, poor diet, and stress. All of this can cause damage to cells.
Antioxidants can provide needed protection from free radical molecules.
The body can regenerate its own antioxidants, and you can get them from food - they are abundant in colorful fruits and vegetables. Many health professionals recommend adding an antioxidant supplement to your daily regime, especially if you're at risk for certain diseases.
Vitamin C is critical to immune function and is an important antioxidant.
Vitamin C is necessary for the synthesis and maintenance of collagen, the primary protein found in connective tissue.
Dietary sources of C include citrus fruits, berries, green and leafy vegetables, tomatoes, and green peppers. It can be difficult to obtain adequate levels through food sources alone because Vitamin C is sensitive to light, air, and heat; certain conditions, such as smoking and stress, increase the need for Vitamin C.
The Reference Daily Intake (RDI) is 60 mg per day.
This powerful antioxidant lends carrots their deep orange color, and the body turns it into Vitamin A.
Vitamin A enhances the health of the skin's epithelial tissue and is essential for the production of mucous membranes and the respiratory tract. This vitamin is also an important component for the production and activity of certain types of white blood cells. Studies show that maintaining high levels of Vitamin A enhances many immune system processes.3
Good food sources include green plants, carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, spinach, and apricots.
It facilitates the absorption of calcium from the intestines. Unfortunately, many American adults do not get enough Vitamin D. Levels may especially be low in the elderly, in those who are housebound or inactive, and in those who live in northern climates. If you suspect you do not get enough sunshine and Vitamin D, talk with your doctor about adding a supplement.
Vitamin D is synthesized in the skin from exposure to sunlight, and is also found in eggs, butter, liver, fatty fish, and milk. Being exposed to 10 to 15 minutes of sunlight just a few days a week without wearing sunscreen can help to meet your Vitamin D needs.
Supplementation is safe and effective if taken within a dosage of 400 I.U. (the RDI) to 800 I.U. per day.
Calcium is essential for blood clotting, nerve transmission, and muscle contractions in addition to its critical role in building strong bones and teeth.6
Research has shown that supplemental calcium significantly relieves such premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms such as water retention, mood swings, food cravings, and pain.7 Although it is never too late to support and nourish your bones, early intervention through adequate calcium intake, regular exercise, and a whole foods diet rich in fresh, unprocessed foods will help prevent bone loss in later years.
Good sources of calcium are dairy products, canned salmon with bones, and leafy green vegetables.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, a woman between the ages of 20 and 50 needs a minimum of 1,000 mg of calcium per day while women over 50 need at least 1,200 mg daily. This will vary depending upon several factors, including pregnancy, lactation, and any medications being taken.
A diet low in magnesium yet high in calcium can actually contribute to osteoporosis. Women with PMS are often deficient in magnesium.8 Magnesium works in concert with calcium and essential fatty acids for many critical functions in the body, including bone, protein, and cell formation.
Unless your diet includes heavy amounts of nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, and dark green leafy vegetables — all good food sources of this important mineral — it can be difficult to obtain recommended amounts from diet alone.
The RDI for magnesium is 400 mg per day.
In addition to the previously mentioned nutrients, the following are important additions to women ages 20 to 39:
Reproductive health and sexual function depend on a healthy diet with adequate nutrient intake, including sufficient amounts of protein.
Protein builds and maintains muscle tissue and helps the body to heal and repair itself.
Protein is found in abundance in fish, beef, poultry, wild game, eggs, dairy products, soybeans, and legumes.
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
A number of studies have found that B6 relieves PMS symptoms and decreases the intensity and duration of menstrual cramps.9
Not stored in the body, Vitamin B6 needs to be replaced by whole foods or supplements within eight hours. Good dietary sources include meats, eggs, whole grains, leafy greens, nuts, and seeds. Vitamin B6 is generally available in a multivitamin formula or a basic Vitamin B complex.
The RDI for Vitamin B6 is 2 mg per day.
Folic Acid (folate)
An adequate supply of this B vitamin is important for women, in particular during the first trimester of pregnancy.
Studies have shown that supplementation with folic acid around the time of conception can reduce the risk of having a child with neural tube defects.10 Folic acid is also extremely heart-friendly.
Folic acid is found in leafy greens, citrus fruits, beans, and wheat germ, and is generally available in a multivitamin formula or a basic Vitamin B complex.
According to The National Academy of Sciences, all women of childbearing age need to have 400 micrograms daily (600 micrograms when pregnant).
Many young women do not get enough iron, a critical mineral that can be lost while menstruating.
Iron is necessary for good energy as it increases the blood's ability to carry oxygen. Fatigue, weakness, pale skin and lips, and a tendency to feel cold may be signs of iron deficiency anemia.
A diet including iron-rich foods (such as, liver, lean red meat, shellfish, and dried beans) may also be complemented by a supplement.
The RDI for iron for women in this age group is 15 mg (30 mg when pregnant).
Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus)
Grown in Mediterranean countries and central Asia, vitex has a long history of medicinal use. Well-respected as a woman's herb, vitex was recommended by Hippocrates for a wide variety of conditions.
Although it does not contain hormones, vitex acts upon the pituitary gland to increase progesterone production and helps with regulating the menstrual cycle. One study found that women taking vitex have significant relief from symptoms ranging from breast tenderness to cramping and headaches.
Chaste Tree is available in herbal and supplement form.
In addition to the previously mentioned nutrients, the following are important additions to women ages 40 to 59:
Soybeans are a rich source of phytoestrogens, primarily the isoflavones daidzein and genistein.
A number of studies11 have linked these isoflavones to the low rate of breast cancer in the Asian population. Studies also show that Japanese women who consume an average of 150–200 milligrams of isoflavones daily, compared to 5 milligrams in the average Western diet, generally have fewer difficulties associated with menopause, including hot flashes.12 Soy isoflavones are available in a variety of soybean-based foods such as tofu, tempeh, soy milk, miso, and soybeans themselves, called edamame.
Although soy foods often command the spotlight for their isoflavone properties, many other foods also share the stage as sources of these helpful phytoestrogens — estrogen-like substances found in certain plants that bind to estrogen receptor sites in the body.
A recent study13 suggests plant-based estrogens appear to offer many of the benefits provided by hormone replacement therapy (HRT) but without the risk associated with estrogen supplements. Along with their heart-protective properties, other benefits of phytoestrogens include a decrease in the number of hot flashes, decreased risk of breast cancer, and protection against osteoporosis.
Evidence has shown adzuki beans, mung beans, fava beans, and bean sprouts contain similar isoflavones as soy. Other foods that contain significant amounts of phytoestrogens are cashews, peanuts, oats, corn, wheat, apples, and almonds.
Long known as a "woman's herb," the dried root and rhizome of black cohosh have been used traditionally for hundreds of years by native Americans for conditions ranging from gynecological problems to rheumatism.
Clinical studies from Germany14 have demonstrated that extract of black cohosh, considered a prime woman's tonic, is a promising treatment for hot flashes.
Black cohosh is available in herbal and supplement form.
Grown throughout Europe and North America, red clover has been widely used in traditional folk medicine for decades. Red clover also contains high amounts of isoflavone compounds called phytoestrogens.
Various studies15 have indicated that these isoflavone compounds may help stabilize various menopausal symptoms.
Red clover is available in herbal and supplement form.
For women who experience them, hot flashes are serious business. Building up your overall health is one way to "cool down" these episodes of intense heat. Hot flashes are also affected by stress, anger, heat, and vasodilators (substances that dilate the blood vessels) such as caffeine, alcohol, and spicy foods. Keep your bedroom cool and wear light, breathable fibers such as silk. Cooling foods like chilled soups, cucumbers, yogurt, and fresh fruit may also help.
In addition to the previously mentioned nutrients, the following are important additions to women ages 60 and beyond:,
Coenzyme Q10 (also called CoQ10)
This powerful antioxidant occurs naturally in the human body, with abundance in heart tissue.
Added as a supplement, CoQ10 may help people with heart disease, who tend to have lower amounts of this compound in their bodies.16 If deficient, the heart muscle may weaken and become less efficient at pumping blood.
Since obtaining enough CoQ10 through dietary sources alone is extremely difficult, it's important to add this supplement to your diet.
There are currently hundreds of studies supporting the benefits of this powerful antioxidant in reducing the risk of heart disease17 — a concern for many post-menopausal women.
Studies also show promising results in decreasing symptoms such as headache, fatigue, depression, and insomnia.
Although wheat germ oil, nuts, seeds, whole grains, egg yolks, and green leafy vegetables are all food sources of Vitamin E, supplementation may be necessary since the protective levels used in most studies (100–800 I.U. per day) cannot be obtained through food sources alone.
The RDI for Vitamin E is 30 I.U.
Vitamin B6 may help protect against heart disease.18
Taken along with folic acid and Vitamin B12, it helps the body to process homocysteine, an amino acid that can be indicative of heart disease risk at elevated levels.
It is generally available in a multivitamin formula or a basic Vitamin B complex, although good dietary sources include meats, eggs, whole grains, leafy greens, nuts, and seeds.
The RDI for Vitamin B6 is 2 mg per day.
Folic Acid (folate)
This B vitamin is very heart-friendly.
Folic Acid helps protect your heart and arteries by keeping homocysteine levels in blood from rising. Excess homocysteine has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease.19 Heavy consumption of meat and dairy products increase homocysteine levels.
Foods rich in folic acid include leafy greens, citrus fruits, beans, and wheat germ.
The RDI for folic acid is 400 mcg per day.
Critical to the formation of healthy red blood cells, Vitamin B12 is also crucial to adults with Crohn's disease or other gastrointestinal problems in addition to strict vegetarians who don't eat any meat or animal products. Symptoms of deficiency include muscle weakness, tingling and numbness in the extremities, low energy, fatigue, depression, and confusion. Consult your health care provider if you suspect a deficiency.
Vitamin B12 also contributes to a healthy immune system and may be useful for maintaining heart health.19
Sources of Vitamin B12 include eggs, meat, fish, liver, and cheese. While only a very small amount is necessary, many older adults may have difficulties absorbing Vitamin B12.21
The RDI for Vitamin B12 is 6 mcg per day.
Nourish Your Heart
Heart disease is a health concern in women over the age of 55. In addition to regular exercise and keeping blood pressure low, consider adding such heart healthy herbs as hawthorn berry, lemon balm, and garlic to your diet on a daily basis.
Whitney E, Cataldo C, Rolfes S. Understanding Normal and Clinical Nutrition. St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing Company, 1987.
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While we think it's important for everyone to make smart food choices, we know that parents and kids often need some extra support