Best nutrients for women's health
In honour of Women's Month, leading nutritional author and expert Patrick Holford unpacks key nutrients needed by women to support and improve overall health, moods and energy, regardless of any hormonal ups and downs.
And the starting point to being your best healthy self?
“It is always a healthy diet,” Holford said, adding, “By that I mean a low GL (glycaemic load) diet, without sugar and minimal refined carbs, choosing whole foods, nuts, seeds, beans, vegetables and fruit and more fish than meat. However, for optimal health that alone is not enough.”
According to Holford, the level, for example, of B vitamins, vitamin C and omega-3 fats that confer the best health for women require supplementation.
“That's why I recommend the 100% Health Pack every day for all women. This is especially important from their forties onwards - the peri-menopausal years, and for women with PMS,” he explained.
In terms of supplements, the nutrients that work to balance hormones are isoflavones (found in beans), indole-3-carbonol (which is the key nutrient in broccoli), vitamins B6, B12, folate, magnesium and zinc.
Below, he breaks down how each of the essential vitamins works:
B is for better
Of the B vitamins, B6 in particular plays an important role for women by helping to balance hormones. It has been shown to help alleviate depression associated with PMS and may effectively reduce anxiety in older women as well. Levels of vitamin B6 are likely to be depleted in women taking the contraceptive pill as a result of the additional supply of oestrogen. Supplementing vitamin B6 can help clear oestrogens from the liver to restore the balance of hormones in the body and avoid oestrogen overload.
B Vitamins - especially vitamin B6, folic acid and B12 - are also important both for the production of energy and stabilising moods.
To get more vitamin B from your diet, include whole grains and bananas for vitamin B6, meat, fish, dairy and eggs for B12 and green leafy vegetables for folic acid.
C it through
Vitamin C is something every one of us needs, but few get enough of. And later in life, women need even more to counter oestrogen deficiency resulting from menopause.
A deficiency of oestrogen has been associated with increased cardiovascular risk and can reduce the elasticity of the arteries and skin, leading to higher blood pressure and more wrinkles, respectively.
A bit of an all-rounder, vitamin C also helps strengthen the immune system, assists in the production of collagen and bone formation, helps generate energy and acts as an antioxidant.
The best available food sources of vitamin C are broccoli and peppers - a serving of broccoli gives twice as much vitamin C as an orange. Next best are kiwi fruit, followed by lemons, strawberries and oranges.
The magic of magnesium
This underrated nutrient works hard behind the scenes to assist in the conversion of vitamin B6 into an active form that the body can use.
Low magnesium levels are associated with poor appetite, nausea, lethargy, mood swings and muscle cramps - all symptoms of hormonal disruption.
Having a low magnesium level, especially pre-menstrually, may also increase the risk of headaches and migraines as well as cramps.
Magnesium has many other benefits too, including muscle relaxation, lowering blood pressure, preventing insomnia and generally calming emotions and promoting mood.
Foods high in magnesium include dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, beans, whole grains, avocados and bananas.
From A to zinc
The mineral zinc is an important factor in female hormone production and much needed pre-menstrually and post-menopause. Levels of zinc tend to be lower in PMS sufferers, especially before a period.
There are over 150 enzymes in the body dependent on zinc, most of which play a role in balancing hormones, but most women just don't get enough of it as it is easily depleted by stress, smoking and alcohol.
Like magnesium, zinc has an anti-depressant effect because of its ability to boost the production of serotonin, also known as the happy hormone.
Zinc also plays a role in promoting fertility and healthy reproduction. Oysters, lamb, nuts, egg yolks, rye and oats are all rich in zinc.
The skinny on essential fats
Essential fats, such as omega-3 and omega-6 fats, help the body perform a multitude of important functions.
Many people have low levels of essential fats, which help keep the brain, nerves, hormones and skin healthy. Omega-3 fats, in particular, can help balance hormones to relieve PMS symptoms and menopausal problems.
Essential fats have been shown to reduce anxiety and help maintain mood and motivation.
Oily fish such as mackerel, herring, sardines and salmon are rich sources of omega-3, while nuts and seeds are rich in omega-6.