The Best Supplements for Women: 3 Experts Weigh In
Are you taking the right nutrients to combat common issues like fatigue and PMS? We asked three prominent integrative doctors—here are their short list of essential nutrients for women.
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As women, we tend to be more aware of the need to take care of our bodies and consider the best vitamins for women’s health needs. Face it, we don’t have a choice. Mother Nature’s blueprint isn’t exactly high-tech, and no matter what sophisticated gadgets we use, certain age-old processes are going to continue, both monthly and over the course of a woman’s lifetime. Fortunately, we’ve evolved nutritionally and learned that along with a clean diet, rich in nonstarchy veggies and lean protein, the right supplements can help smooth out the bumpy road of life.
3 Crucial Vitamins for Women
“Women don’t realize how critical some of the key micronutrients are, things like the B vitamins, vitamin D, and magnesium,” says Taz Bhatia, MD, integrative physician and author of Super Woman Rx and The 21-Day Belly Fix. “They play such a strong role in the course of all sorts of diseases, everything from autoimmune disease to cancer to diabetes, heart disease-all of that.” And they help eliminate common issues such as lack of energy and the effects of stress.
Here is a closer look at these three important supplements and vitamins for women:
1. B Vitamins & Healthy Hormone Production
They’re essential for healthy metabolism of sugars and starches and for hormone production. They help turn hormones into active or inactive forms, make sure hormones reach the correct destination within a woman’s body, and help eliminate excess hormones to prevent toxicity.
B vitamins are vital for the production of neurotransmitters. “B vitamins also help combat sugar cravings and fatigue, common symptoms that tend to accompany and promote hormone imbalance,” says Serena Goldstein, ND, a naturopathic doctor in New York specializing in natural hormone balance.
What to do: Eat whole grains, lean meat, fish, and eggs for food sources, and take a B-complex supplement with 25-50 mg of vitamins B1, B2, and B5; 400-600 mcg of folic acid; and 1,000 mcg of B12. B vitamins are best taken in the morning for energy.
2. Vitamin D3 & PMS, Depression, & Breast Cancer
Low levels of vitamin D, quite prevalent among women, are linked to greater odds of PMS, death from breast cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, difficult pregnancies, uterine fibroids, rheumatoid arthritis, impaired sugar metabolism, gestational diabetes, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, heart disease, postmenopausal loss of bone and muscle, and higher risk of falls and fractures later in life, says Bhatia. Kidney stones can also be caused by too little vitamin D, says Goldstein. “Generally speaking we don’t get enough, even those who live below the equator,” she says. Optimal liver health is necessary for vitamin D absorption, adds Goldstein. “This is one of the reasons why I recommend the active form, D3, over D2, the inactive form.”
What to do: Get your vitamin D levels tested and take supplements based on your personal needs. Failing that, 1,000 IU daily is a safe amount to take, but may not be enough. Up to 5,000 IU can be taken daily. Ideal ranges tend to fall between 50 and 70, says Goldstein.
3. Magnesium & Anxiety, Constipation, & Insomnia
Like B vitamins, magnesium is essential for many processes within a woman’s body. A shortfall-which is all too common-can result in cramps, anxiety, constipation, sore muscles, sleep difficulties, and other unpleasant symptoms. “Magnesium can be depleted by stress, soda, caffeine, certain medications, and unfortunately, it’s not as prevalent in soil as decades ago,” says Goldstein.
What to do: Best taken in the evening to enhance sleep; start with 100 mg daily and work up to 200-800 mg. Cut back if you experience loose stools. It’s important to keep in mind that there are more than 10 different forms of magnesium, points out Goldstein, who advises working with a knowledgeable professional to find an appropriate form for your particular health goals.
As an alternative to pills or magnesium powders mixed in water, take a bath in Epsom salts: 2 cups in a warm tub, and soak for at least 15 minutes, three times a week. Another option to improve elimination: Massage one tablespoon of magnesium oil into your tummy and the soles of your feet each night before bed.
Did you know?
There are more than 10 different forms of magnesium. Work with a knowledgeable professional to find an appropriate form for your particular health goals.
Supplements for Bloating, Digestion, & Weight Loss
All of these issues are related and can be improved by enhancing the digestive process, says Bhatia. Constipation can be corrected with magnesium. In addition to eating whole foods, especially lean proteins and vegetables, these supplements can help:
At least 20 billion colony forming units (CFUs) per serving of four or five strains of beneficial bacteria.
A combination of amylase to break down starches, lipase for fats, and protease for proteins. Take them after the heaviest meal of the day.
Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV):
First thing in the morning, drink a mixture of 1 Tbs. ACV with 4 Tbs. water. Or try a betaine HCL supplement, starting with 10-15 mg, just before your heaviest meal.
Supplements for Hormonal Imbalances
Hormone fluctuations are normal. In a perfect world, they would rebalance themselves, but our world is far from perfect. “Toxins are hormone disruptors, and women can have hormone deficiencies simply based upon that fact,” says Steven Hotze, MD, founder and CEO of the Hotze Health & Wellness Center in Houston, and author of Hormones, Health, and Happiness. Toxic chemicals can be found in foods, skin care products, and indoor and outdoor air, as well as in all types of conventional medications. “All these things are hormone disruptors,” Hotze says, “and they will adversely affect the body’s ability to produce or utilize hormones.”
In particular, toxins can be xenoestrogens, meaning they mimic estrogen, and create estrogen dominance-inflated estrogen levels in relation to progesterone. In addition, in the years approaching menopause (perimenopause), progesterone production naturally drops, so there’s a double-whammy effect. Symptoms can include irregular or heavy periods, brain fog, mood swings, breast swelling, headaches, fibroids, and for many, a feeling of “losing myself.”
Low levels of the active thyroid hormone, called T3, can also cause issues in women. Unfortunately, conventional blood tests may appear normal in these cases, because many doctors measure only the inactive, T4 form of the hormone, but don’t pay attention to the active, T3 form. They may suggest antidepressants to treat the symptoms instead of addressing the actual problem. Or, prescriptions of synthetic thyroid medication may raise the inactive T4 form, but not the active T3 form, and the problem persists.
Low levels of active thyroid hormone can deplete energy and make metabolism sluggish, leading to inexplicable weight gain, cold hands and feet, brain fog and moodiness, and fertility problems. They can also contribute to hair loss and a puffy, pasty appearance.
Supplements That Enhance Detoxification
Eating organic foods, using natural skin care and household products, and taking medications only when truly necessary helps reduce exposure to toxins, but it’s impossible to avoid them all. Sometimes, hormonal balance can’t be fully restored without customized testing and natural hormone prescriptions, but the right supplements can also help.
“A good vitamin program is important to stimulate detoxification in the body,” says Hotze. He recommends a formula with several pills per daily serving, including 5,000 IU of vitamin A; 50 mg of vitamin B1, B2, and B5 ; 200 mcg of chromium; and 50-100 mcg of selenium. In addition, consider taking these daily: extra magnesium, fish oil (get about 500 mg of a combination of EPA and DHA), 1,000 mg of vitamin C, and about 60 mg of CoQ10. These are some other remedies:
Bioidentical Progesterone Benefits:
Low-dose forms of progesterone cream, available in health food stores, may resolve the situation, or it may require customized testing and natural (technically called “bioidentical”) progesterone, and sometimes other hormones by prescription. Use progesterone on days 15-28 of a monthly cycle.
There are also many herbs that help support progesterone production, says Goldstein, such as chasteberry (vitex).
Vitamins for Thyroid Health:
These nutrients are especially important for producing and activating thyroid hormone.
- Magnesium: 600-1,000 mg daily, and perhaps more if you do intense exercise, as magnesium is lost in sweat. (See magnesium section above for different forms.)
- Vitamin B12: 1,000 mcg daily.
- Zinc: 20 mg daily.
- Iodine: 75 mcg daily.
- Vitamin A: 5,000 IU daily.
- Vitamin D: 1,000-2,000 IU daily.
- Selenium: Up to 200 mcg daily.
- Vitamin C: Loose stools are a sign of too much, but because stress depletes vitamin C, you may need more than you think. Start with 1,000 mg daily, but higher doses-1,000 mg per 25 pounds of body weight-may be helpful.
If you try these supplements and continue to have problems, look for a physician who is knowledgeable in nutrition and natural (bioidentical) hormone testing and treatment. For more information, visit the Institute for Functional Medicine (functionalmedicine.org) or the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (naturopathic.org).
More Remedies for Fatigue, PMS, & Sleep
According to New York-based doctor Serena Goldstein, ND, the best vitamins and supplements for women (listed here by chief health complaint) include:
- Fatigue: B vitamins.
- Sleep issues: Magnesium before bedtime. If that doesn’t work, try melatonin: 1-6 mg of a slow-release form, 30 minutes before bed. Taking melatonin for a long period of time (different for everyone) can make people groggy upon waking up.
- Anxiety: Theanine, 200 mg, three times a day.
- Depression: B vitamins, preferably methylated forms (which are easier to absorb), such as the 5-MTHF form of folic acid.
- PMS: Turmeric root (not an extract), 2-3 grams daily, especially during the last two weeks before a menstrual cycle.
- Urinary tract infections: As a natural treatment, 500 mg of cranberry extract, three times a day. For prevention, take probiotics to maintain healthy bacteria, which help prevent infections. Goldstein adds: “Homeopathic Cantharis, when taken during the onset of a bladder infection, can be very effective.” Use 3 pellets of a 30C potency every 15 minutes, or until pain subsides. If pain continues to worsen or extends to lower back, seek urgent care.
- Healthy aging: In addition to the three basic nutrients, take 1,000 mg daily of vitamin C and 100-300 mg of CoQ10. In the case of inflammatory conditions, joint pain, autoimmune diseases, or a family history of heart or neurological problems, take fish oil: 2-3 grams daily of a combination of EPA and DHA.
Meet the Experts
For more information on the experts interviewed in this article, visit their websites:
Taz Bhatia, MD:
Serena Goldstein, ND:
Steven Hotze, MD: