There are so many vitamins out there, it can be pretty confusing working out which ones we should be taking, what we get from food and when we’re popping too many pills. Here’s your lowdown on the vitamin benefits for women. Remember, this is just a guide – if you are planning to up your vitamin intake through supplements it’s always advisable to contact your GP or a dietician first.
Why do we need vitamins?
Vitamins are essential nutrients our bodies need to maintain good health – they keep your skin healthy, help with the growth of your hair and nails, strengthen your bones, they boost your immune system and help convert food into energy. Vitamins play a part in your tooth health, help with blood clotting and protect us against colds. You get most of your daily vitamins from foods, fortified cereals and drinks so factor this in; if you eat a balanced diet which includes all the food groups, you shouldn’t need to use supplements at all.
Can you take too many vitamins?
If you take vitamins your body doesn’t need, your body will get rid of them through your urine – so it’s completely pointless and a waste of money. Do your research thoroughly; there are tests to see whether you are deficient in anything. Routinely getting too many vitamins or too high a dose can have adverse effects on your health so it’s important to check the daily recommended dose (women have different daily doses to men) and stick to it.
Vitamin Benefits – If you don’t have the healthiest diet….
B Vitamins: There are loads of B Vitamins so it’s a pretty good place to start; especially as we need them to keep our overall health up to scratch, maintaining our metabolism, nervous system and health of our skin and help with hair growth. Lots of B vitamins are found in the same foods; leafy green vegetables like broccoli and spinach, wholegrains like brown bread and rice, milk, cheese, chicken and fish, lentils, avocados, almonds, sunflower seeds and bananas. If you’re reading through this list shaking your head because you don’t eat enough of these foods; supplements might be a good idea.
How can I tell if I’m B vitamin deficient?
B vitamins play a big role in your cell health and keeping you energised, but as they all have a slightly different job in your body it can be hard to tell which ones you are deficient in. If you don’t eat a huge amount of meat or dairy products (or are vegetarian or vegan) you may be deficient in vitamin B12 for example, and if your fruit and vegetable intake is low, you might want to up vitamins B7 and B9.
Typical symptoms you may experience if you are lacking in B Vitamins are cracks around your mouth, skin rashes, swollen tongue and fatigue, a pale-yellow tinge to your skin and mouth ulcers. Talk to your GP if you suspect a B vitamin deficiency, who can pinpoint which B vitamin you are lacking – there are also B vitamin complex capsules, which contain doses of all the B vitamins you may need.
Vitamin Benefits – If you have low sun exposure…
You need to up your Vitamin D intake if you spend a lot of time indoors away from the sun. Your body makes about 90% of the vitamin D it needs to maintain your immune system and plays a big part in your bone health, but only if it gets enough UV light from sunshine – something that can be a problem living in the cloudy UK, you work indoors or have pale skin that burns easily, so tend to avoid the sun.
Get ten minutes of sun a day
Experts say getting just ten minutes of direct sunlight a day can stop you from being vitamin D deficient, but this also depends on your skin – I am half Indian and have a vitamin D deficiency as my skin doesn’t absorb the same amount of Vitamin D as those with fairer skin. If you have darker skin, you’ll need to spend more time in the sun to produce the same amount of vitamin D needed – so keep this in mind.
Vitamin D deficient symptoms
The symptoms of being vitamin D deficient are subtle and as people have reported a variety of symptoms, it often goes undiagnosed (mine manifested itself in intestinal problems, so it was a relief to discover it was a vitamin D deficiency and not something more serious). The most common symptoms are frequently catching colds and flu, tiredness, bone and muscle pain and hair loss. You can have a blood test at your doctors to see if you are deficient and you’ll likely be prescribed a high dosage of Vitamin D tablets to start off with.
Vitamin D supplements
The advice from Public Health England, is that we should all take a Vitamin D supplement between the months of October and March when sunlight exposure is at its lowest. We only need 10 micrograms a day to keep levels at a healthy amount and luckily Vitamin D tablets can be bought over the counter and are inexpensive.
Don’t forget Vitamin D is found naturally in foods such as oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and herring and also in red meat, liver and egg yolks.
- Foods that contain Vitamin D only make up about 10% of the levels we need, which is why your body makes the remaining 90% from the sun. It’s still recommended you take a Vitamin D supplement in the Winter months even if you eat foods containing Vitamin D.
- There are reports that say Vitamin D sprays are more effective than taking tablets and are certainly convenient and easier to administer.
Recommended daily dose of Vitamin D: 10 mcg a day
Vitamin Benefits – If you have heavy periods…
Women who experience heavy periods, can have low iron-levels and may feel fatigued, dizzy and have headaches (or even iron deficiency aneamia) with the arrival of their period.
Try to up the iron-rich foods you eat, such as leafy green vegetables, sprinkle sunflower seeds on your porridge or eat beans and steak. Consider taking an iron supplement if you feel really depleted – taking Iron supplement pills can often have side effects such as constipation, stomach pain and nausea so try a liquid iron supplement instead, which are reported to have fewer side effects.
Read What to eat at different stages of your cycle to see how you can help your monthly cycle through food.
Recommended daily dose of iron: Try to get 18mg of iron daily, ideally through food and then supplements if you don’t eat iron-rich foods.
Vitamin Benefits – If you’re planning a pregnancy…
Folic acid (or Vitamin B9) is essential for anyone who is planning a pregnancy or is pregnant. It helps to protect your baby against neural tube defects such as Spina Bifida. Ideally you want to build up the levels of folic in your system, so start a daily dose of 400mcg three to four months before you plan to conceive.
Many pregnancies happen without forward planning so start taking folic acid as soon as you discover you are pregnant until week 12 of your pregnancy. Make sure your Folic Acid tablet doesn’t contain vitamin A as that can cause problems for your growing baby.
Good sources of folate (folic acid) are foods such as spinach, broccoli, cabbage, peas and chickpeas. Lots of cereals are also fortified with folate.
Recommended daily dose of Folic Acid: for women thinking of conceiving and pregnant women: 400 micrograms
Vitamin Benefits- If you get over-anxious…
Magnesium supplements have been used to reduce anxiety and to help with general wellbeing and may improve brain function. It’s found naturally in foods such as dark leafy greens, broccoli, seeds and nuts, dairy, meat, coffee and dark chocolate. Magnesium has been seen to improve sleep; those with a magnesium deficiency often sleep badly or never fall into a deep restorative sleep. It also acts as a natural muscle relaxer so can encourage relaxation and therefore lower stress levels.
Magnesium has also been seen to regulate high-blood pressure and can help to relieve leg cramps in pregnancy. Studies suggest it can have benefits for your bone health and symptoms of PMS and can even help prevent migraines.
Your GP can advise if you plan to take magnesium supplements. Consider taking them in a magnesium cream which counters some of the side-effects that come with taking them in capsules, or look at taking Magnesium Citrate, which has been found to absorb more easily into your digestive system.
Recommended daily dose of Magnesium: 270mg for women (100g of almonds contains approx. 270mg)
Vitamin Benefits- If you avoid dairy…
Calcium is crucial in maintaining your bone health and keeps your teeth strong, helps with blood clotting and muscle function. Women are more prone to Osteoporosis, especially once you have gone through the menopause, so it’s even more important to get calcium-rich foods into your diet.
Foods high in calcium
Calcium-rich foods include milk and cheese, tofu, broccoli, soya beans, okra, nuts, sardines and cornflakes for breakfast if they have been fortified. The advice is to get the recommended amount of calcium (1,000mg a day if you are younger than 50, or 1,200mg if you are over 50), from food alone and only use a supplement if your diet is low in calcium-rich foods. This might be the case if you are dairy-intolerant or vegan for example.
Lack of calcium
If you are lacking in calcium it cause all sorts of problems, including losing bone mass which results in your bones becoming weak, muscle cramps, fainting or lethargy, brittle fingernails, tingling fingers and teeth erosion. Talk to your GP if you think you might be calcium-deficient and only take the recommended daily dose; too much calcium in supplements can result in your body unable to absorb zinc and iron, so your GP can advise on dosage.
Vitamin Benefits- If you don’t eat a lot of fish….
According to experts we should be eating at least two portions of fish a week, but hands up who doesn’t even get one? Fish, is a low-fat protein, packed with vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids, which our bodies need for heart health, eye health, brain growth and for the development of babies in the womb.
It can help with inflammation, bone and joint health and numerous other diseases. In short, we need to include fish in our diet, especially oily fish like mackerel, salmon, sardines and herring. If you don’t get enough, you will need to look at supplements.
* Although eating fish has enormous benefits, eating too much can also be harmful because they can contain small amounts of pollutants which build up over time. That’s why the advice is to eat no more than four portions of oily fish per week.
There are lots of Omega-3 supplements available so it’s easy to get confused:
Natural fish Oil – is the closest thing you get to actually eating fish and often contains vitamin A and D. It comes in tablets or capsules.
Processed Fish Oil – Most fish oils you buy are processed to get rid of pollutants like mercury. Processed oils are not as absorbed into your body as easily as natural fish oils.
Omega-3 Capsules – Easy to swallow, with no taste. Check the label to see if your supplements contain EPA and DHA – the most important Omega-3’s. It’s also important to check for freshness, as the oil can become rancid over time. Fresh capsules should have no smell at all, so break open from time to time, and discard if there’s a pungent fish smell.
Vitamin Benefits- You suffer from colds a lot…
If you suffer from frequent colds, think about upping foods in your diet which are packed with zinc – these include cheese, meat, nuts and seeds, wholegrain bread, shellfish and chickpeas. If these aren’t foods you generally get in your diet, you may need a supplement. However, we don’t need a huge amount of zinc (7mg a day for women and 9.5mg for men) to feel the benefits.
Zinc can speed up recovery from a cold, help fight inflammation and is great for your immunity. If you decide to take a supplement, check with your GP what your daily dose should be. Taking more than 25mg a day can affect how your body absorbs copper, so stick to small doses or even better, eat zinc-rich foods when you feel a cold coming.
Make the right choices
- Choose supplements from brands you trust or from health food shops or pharmacies. Buying off the internet means you may be buying something that hasn’t met UK standards.
- Only ever take the recommended dose for your age, sex and condition. Too much or too little can have adverse health effects.
- Pregnant women should not take anything containing Vitamin A (fish oils for example) as these can be harmful for growing babies.
- Check labels to see how much salt or sugar is added to supplements – and opt for supplements without anything added.