Six essential nutrients for women

  • 20 Apr 2017
  • Reading time 13 mins
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I’m often asked if women need different amounts of nutrients to men. Generally speaking no. We all need vitamins, essential fats, amino acids etc.

However, excluding pregnancy, when the optimal intake of most nutrients goes up, there are certain nutrients than women do need more of, some even more so pre- and post-menstrually, and in the peri and post menopausal phase. Some help with PMS and menopausal symptoms and other hormonally related problems.

The six essentials that women need more of are:

  • B vitamins – especially vitamin B6, folic acid and B12
  • Vitamin C
  • Magnesium
  • Zinc
  • Isoflavones
  • Indoles eg I3C

B vitamins

B vitamins are important both for the production of energy and stabilizing mood. B6 is needed to convert essential fats into prostaglandins, which sensitise cells to hormones and therefore prevent the effects of hormone imbalances.

Vitamin B6 is needed for choline to function which helps to clear oestrogens from the liver. If these oestrogens are not cleared efficiently, symptoms related to oestrogen overload may occur, including greater risk of breast cancer.

A low level of B6 is associated with an excess of oestrogen in relation to progesterone so supplementing with the vitamin will help to restore the balance. It has also been shown that vitamin B6 levels are depleted in women taking the contraceptive pill, likely to be due to the additional supply of oestrogen. Several trials on vitamin B6 have reported considerable improvements in premenstrual syndrome, usually at a dose of 100mg a day (1). B6 alleviates depression associated with premenstrual syndrome (2).

Vitamins B12 and folic acid are also co-factors for the enzymes that either synthesise hormones or help to create prostaglandins. Together with B6 they are the cornerstone of methylation, which protects DNA, hence doubly essential in pregnancy to minimise risk of pregnancy problems and birth defects. But methylation also helps switch off genes that predispose to disease.

Magnesium

In order for your body to convert B6 (as pyridoxine) into its active form (pyridoxal-5-phosphate), which your body can use, it needs other nutrients such as zinc and magnesium. Giving vitamin B6 elevates magnesium levels during periods (3). Low magnesium levels are associated with poor appetite, nausea, lethargy, mood swings and muscle cramps. Magnesium reduces water retention (4) and improves mood (5).

Women suffering from PMS have been shown to have lower levels of magnesium compared to women without symptoms. Oestrogen increases tissue and bone absorption of magnesium, thus, ageing (decreasing oestrogen) is associated with increased need for magnesium (and higher rates of magnesium deficiency conditions) (6).

Like vitamin B6 and zinc, magnesium is required for making prostaglandins, and may help PMS sufferers this way. Cramps are most commonly due to calcium/magnesium imbalances and can be corrected by supplementing with magnesium.

The combination of vitamin B6 with magnesium is particularly effective in reducing the symptoms of PMS. A randomised controlled study gave three groups of women either a placebo, magnesium on its own or with vitamin B6 for four months. (You want to be taking in about 50mg of B6 and 300mg of magnesium for a significant effect.) The mean score of PMS significantly decreased in all the three groups (p < 0.05). The decrease was the greatest in the Mg plus vitamin B6 group, and was the least in the placebo group (7).

Magnesium has so many other benefits, including muscle relaxation, lowering blood pressure, preventing insomnia and generally calming emotions and promoting mood. Vitamin B6 and magnesium improve anxiety related PMS (8).

Having a low magnesium level, especially pre-menstrually, may also be a risk factor for headaches and migraines. One recent study found that, among migraine sufferers, the odds of having a migraine increased by 36 times when magnesium levels dropped below normal levels (9). Another reviewed 10 studies giving high dose oral magnesium and 11 giving intravenous magnesium, both of which showed a dramatic and significant relief of symptoms (10). Most studies gave 1,000mg of magnesium.

Getting enough magnesium also reduces cancer risk. A high magnesium intake almost doubles survival from breast cancer (11). A recent massive study of 140,000 women followed for 13 years found that those in the highest fifth of magnesium intake, equivalent to 400mg a day, cut their risk of colorectal cancer by 20 per cent (12).

However, achieving 400mg of magnesium from diet is no small feat. The average woman achieves almost half this – 226mg a day. That is why I think it is essential for a woman to supplement at least an extra 200mg which is the minimal dose in studies that produces an effect. My multi gives 155mg if taken twice a day, which is exceptional for multivitamins. However, you want an extra 50 to 100mg, especially if you have PMS or menopausal symptoms.

Zinc

The mineral zinc plays an important role in fertility and reproduction and is one of the key nutrients you want to bump up if pregnant or breastfeeding. It’s also an important co-factor in female hormone production and much needed pre-menstrually and post-menopause.

Zinc and magnesium levels tend to be lower in PMS sufferers, especially in the luteal phase, before a period. Both appear to boost serotonin levels and zinc has an anti-depressant effect (13). Zinc is vital for methylation, working with B vitamins and betaine hydrochloride (stomach acid).

There are over 150 enzymes in the body dependent on zinc and many are connected with hormonal balance. Most women don’t get enough with the average intake being 7.6mg. I’d say a minimum intake is 15mg but you can easily double this if you have hormonal or fertility issues and wish to get pregnant. A good multi might give you 10mg so you could do with the same again from a female friendly formula like my Female Balance available from Holfordirect.com.

Vitamin C

We all need vitamin C, and few get enough. At the very least one wants to take in 1,000mg although I believe a good average optimum level is twice this. However, women could do with a little more, especially later in life. Oestrogen deficiency, seen during the menopause is associated with increased cardiovascular risk and endothelial dysfunction, which means that ......

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