A woman's nutritional needs change with her age. Supplements can ensure women get the nutrients they need no matter what their age.
Over a woman’s lifetime, her health concerns and nutrient needs can vary. The health challenges faced by women in their teens and twenties are significantly different from those faced in their fifties, sixties, and beyond. Natural products, such as herbs and supplements, can address many of women’s health concerns—at any age.
This mineral is essential for the formation of healthy blood cells and their ability to transport oxygen to our body’s tissues. When we consider how important oxygen is to everything our bodies do, we start to understand how important iron is. Iron deficiencies can affect women at different ages and create different health problems.
For puberty to menopause
Unfortunately, low iron levels are not uncommon in women and many will experience iron deficiency at some point between puberty and menopause, often due to monthly blood loss. Symptoms of low iron may include
- difficulty concentrating
- shortness of breath
- coldness in hands and feet
- frequent infections
- low tolerance for exercise
Iron deficiency is easy to diagnose with just a quick blood test, and it is easy to treat through increased intake of dietary iron as well as iron supplementation.
Good food sources of iron include cooked leafy green vegetables, fortified grain products, meats and fish, soy products, beans, and pumpkin seeds. In cases of iron deficiency, iron supplements will also be required, at least in the short term, in order to bring iron levels up sufficiently. Supplementation can provide a real improvement in energy levels.
For athletes of all ages
Low iron levels are not uncommon in female athletes, particularly in endurance sports such as running, cycling, and triathlon. Female athletes should have their iron status assessed regularly, particularly if they experience unexplained fatigue or performance deficits. If low iron levels are present, iron supplementation in female athletes can improve energy, performance, and mood.
For children and teens
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Without iron, the brain cannot function optimally and iron deficiency should be considered in children and teens who have problems focusing, learning, and concentrating. In one study, 23 percent of youth with ADHD were found to be iron deficient. Those with lower iron levels were found to need higher doses of ADHD medications than those with higher iron levels.
Many of us reach for our daily multi, but prenatal multivitamins are essential for maternal health and fetal development.
For childbearing years
Women who are considering becoming pregnant should take a prenatal multivitamin. It is standard practice to recommend these supplements to pregnant women, but starting to take them before pregnancy may be more beneficial than waiting until you’re pregnant.
Many women don’t know they’re pregnant right away. By the time pregnancy is confirmed, the fetus has already begun some very important developmental stages. Starting a prenatal multi early helps ensure that baby and mom’s important nutrient needs are met from the very start.
One key nutrient is folic acid, which can be taken in a prenatal supplement. These products are safe, usually easy to take, and have been linked to a number of potential benefits, including reduced risk of
- cleft palate
- neural tube defects
- defects of the cardiovascular or urinary systems
- limb deformities
A reduced risk of certain childhood cancers has also been associated with prenatal multivitamin use.
Vitex agnus-castus (also known as chaste tree and chasteberry)
For teens to forties
Not a nutrient, but a herbal product, vitex has been a mainstay of women’s herbal medicine for generations. In recent years, vitex has also been recognized by researchers for its potential benefit for women suffering from hormonal imbalances, particularly PMS.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
Some women dread the monthly arrival of PMS symptoms. An unpleasant result of hormone fluctuations, PMS can include mood changes, cramping, breast tenderness, fatigue, and emotional sensitivity. The severity of these symptoms can vary from mild to severe. For some women, vitex may provide relief.
A 2012 study found that 20 mg of a standardized extract of vitex taken during three menstrual cycles provided significant symptom relief. Liquid extracts have also been shown to relieve symptoms.
This health-enhancing beverage has been a part of customs and cultures around the world for centuries. Yet researchers have only recently begun to uncover the specific health benefits of green tea.
For all ages
Green tea has been shown to reduce stroke risk for women of all ages. Although strokes are more common as we age, their prevention begins early on. The dietary and lifestyle choices that we make when we are young (not smoking, exercising regularly, eating nutrient-rich foods) affect our risk of stroke in the later years. Drinking green tea regularly (at least three cups a day) is one habit that has been linked to a reduced stroke risk of 21 percent compared to drinking less than one cup a day.
For 40 plus
This is the age when women are most likely to develop high cholesterol levels. This is another case where green tea may be helpful, in addition to other dietary changes. In a 2009 study, 250 mg of green tea dry extract was found to promote an additional reduction in cholesterol levels compared to dietary changes alone over a total study period of 16 weeks.
High blood pressure
From age 40 onward, the risk of high blood pressure also increases. Here too, green tea can lend a helping hand. Subjects who drank three cups of green tea a day for four weeks were found to have significant decreases in blood pressure.
For 30 plus
In our late thirties, most of us start to notice some subtle, age-related changes in our skin; a fine line here, a thinning there. Although drinking green tea has traditionally been believed to promote youth and beauty, it turns out that topical use might not be a bad idea either. Green tea extracts found in some face cremes may help reduce fine lines and wrinkles.
In one study, 63 percent of study participants reported improvement in the appearance of wrinkles when using a topical green tea extract. Some early evidence also suggests oral use of green tea extracts could help protect the skin from ultraviolet (UV) damage, just another way green tea might help promote a more youthful glow.
Another important nutrient, zinc is helpful in maintaining immune and skin health, and balancing blood sugar.
For 50 plus
Zinc is an important nutrient for the health of the immune system, a system that can sometimes weaken with age. Zinc levels also tend to decrease with age, and supplementation can be helpful to restore healthy levels. In a study of individuals over age 50, 12 months of zinc supplementation was found to result in a measurable reduction in risk of infections compared to those of the same age who did not take zinc supplements.
For teens to twenties
Acne is a major concern for many women. This common skin condition can affect women (and men) at any age, but is usually more common in the teens and twenties. Zinc may play a role in alleviating acne. Researchers have found that those with acne may have lower blood levels of zinc and vitamin A and E than those without the condition, and the severity of acne may be correlated with blood levels of these nutrients. A study of zinc supplementation over a 12-week period found 79 percent of those with mild to moderate acne experienced at least an 80 percent improvement in their acne symptoms.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
ADHD diagnoses have exploded in recent years. Prescription medication use for children and teens with ADHD has risen in Canada, with use of the drug Ritalin doubling since 1994. This has led many parents to look for alternative treatments for their teens who have been diagnosed with ADHD. Along with iron, zinc is one of the nutrients that has been getting attention. Supplementation with zinc has been shown to reduce required doses of ADHD medications.
Zinc is an important mineral for many bodily functions, so it’s little wonder that trouble can arise if levels begin to fall. Make sure your intake stays up by including zinc-rich foods in your diet such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes.
Omega-3 fatty acids
These essential fats are used by the body to moderate inflammation, lubricate tissues, repair cell membranes, and support nerve and cardiovascular health. Rich sources of the omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) include fish and krill oils.
Vegetarian sources of omega-3s include seed oils as well as algae extracts (which provide DHA). These essential fats have garnered major research attention over the last 10 years or so. Research findings have been mixed in terms of how much of an effect omega-3 supplementation may have on some health concerns. But there are two things that we know for sure: we need omega-3 fatty acids in our diet, and low levels are associated with various health problems.
For women, studies into the benefits of fish oil, an excellent source of omega-3, have produced promising results for the following age groups.
For 50 plus
In healthy adults over 50, fish oil use was associated with improved cognitive performance measures after five weeks of use. A 12-month study showed improvement in memory in older subjects who had mild age-related cognitive impairments.
For 40 plus
Supplementation with high DHA fish oil for 90 days was found to improve visual acuity in those over 45 compared to a placebo group.
Supplementation with high EPA fish oil for 12 weeks resulted in a 20 percent reduction in anxiety symptoms among medical students compared to a placebo group. So whether it’s your brain, mood, or eyesight that you’re concerned about, increasing your omega-3 intake may be worthwhile.
Isoflavones are among the best-studied natural products for the treatment of menopausal symptoms. These plant compounds, most often derived from soy, but also from red clover, have some promising research to back them up.
For 40 plus
For some women, the years just before, as well as during, menopause can produce a whole host of new symptoms. Among the most disruptive of these symptoms are hot flashes. In some cases, the severity and frequency of these heat surges are such that they completely disrupt a woman’s day-to-day life. Although in some cases hormone replacement therapy (HRT) may be required to provide meaningful symptom relief, other cases may be eased with natural interventions.
Red clover isoflavones have been shown to significantly reduce hot flashes and night sweats. Compared to placebo, soy isoflavones significantly reduce both the frequency and severity of hot flashes and were even shown in one study to provide relief of hot flashes, muscle pain, and vaginal dryness, similar to low-dose HRT. Combination products, containing both soy- and red clover-derived isoflavones, have also been shown to reduce hot flashes in as little as a month.
For women suffering from hot flashes who are looking for a natural approach, just remember that isoflavones can take a month or more to begin providing relief, so be patient.
The list of natural products that can help address women’s health concerns is long and based on a long history of traditional herbal and nutritional medicine. The above nutrients and plant extracts are just a sampling of the natural approaches that are backed by positive research findings.
As with any other natural health product, consult your health care practitioner to determine which supplements and dosages are right for you, especially if pregnant or breastfeeding.
Calcium and vitamin D: did you know?
- Despite some bad press in recent years, a 2013 study found that women taking calcium and vitamin D supplements had a lower incidence of vertebral fractures compared to those who did not. The study, which reviewed findings from about 30,000 women, also found no increased risk of cardiovascular disease in those using calcium and vitamin D.
- Breast milk is usually a very poor source of vitamin D. For this reason, it is widely recommended that breastfed infants also receive a vitamin D supplement. However, a 2013 study found that women who took 5,000 IU per day of vitamin D3 were able to produce breast milk with sufficient levels of vitamin D to prevent deficiency in their breastfeeding babies.
- In a study of women with gestational diabetes, vitamin D supplementation was found to improve fasting blood sugar levels as well as cholesterol levels. A second study also found that vitamin D supplements improved markers of insulin resistance in pregnant women.
- Women who use calcium supplements during pregnancy may also support better dental health in their children in years to come. A 2010 study found that children of women who took calcium during pregnancy had a 27 percent reduction in cavities at age 12 compared to children of women who took a placebo.