In a perfect world, there would be no supplements. We’d easily meet our daily quota of nine fruits and vegetables, and plates of wild, mercury-free fish would materialize at the table, with sides of pesticide-free salads, organically farmed vegetables, and whole grains. Nourishing soups, legumes, hormone-free dairy products, and other nutritional knockouts would round out our meals. And of course, junk food would be as appealing as broccoli to a five-year-old.
Unfortunately, for those of us who aren’t fortunate enough to live at a health spa or possess a live-in cook with a degree in nutritional science, our eating habits fall short of perfection. So we turn to supplements to give us the vitamins, minerals, and trace elements missing in our daily fare.
But trying to figure out which supplements, if any, that we need is confusing. A visit to the vitamin section at the local health food shop is a dizzying experience. Vitamins from A to Z jostle for counter space with intriguingly labeled tablets like Resveratrol, Joint Support, and Ultra Goji. How do we know where to start?
Women at every stage of life benefit from a diet rich in calcium. “Bone health is a huge, important issue for women”, says Steven R. Goldstein, professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine. “There are more osteoporosis-related bone fractures in women each year than all heart attacks, strokes, and incidences of breast cancer and gynecological cancers combined.”
The problem is exacerbated after menopause, he explains, because women stop producing estrogen, which plays a role in fortifying the bones. “Bone mass peaks in women in their mid-thirties so it’s important that women have adequate calcium intake throughout their lives.”
For women who do not consume enough dairy products, kale, sardines, and other natural sources of calcium, Goldstein recommends 1200 milligrams of elemental calcium per day. “Keep in mind that if you take a calcium supplement, you really only absorb about 40 percent of it”, he says. “Even if your calcium tablet says it’s giving you 600 milligrams at one time, you’re not absorbing all of that. So it’s better to take several tablets throughout the day.”
But protecting your bones is not as simple as reaching for the ‘calcium’ bottle. Jim Conzo, a nutritionist with Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Massachusetts, explains that rather than being a solitary actor in the body, calcium works in conjunction with magnesium and vitamin D.
Both are necessary for the absorption of calcium, Conzo says, but they offer benefits of their own. “The latest research on vitamin D indicates that it helps support the muscles, acts as an anti-inflammatory, and regulates blood sugar”, he explains. “Vitamin D helps with the production of serotonin. And it reduces the risk of autoimmune diseases and type-1 diabetes, as well as many kinds of cancer.”
When your mother told you to play outside, she was onto something: the cheapest and most plentiful source of vitamin D is sunlight. But these days, many of us live in sunless climates, spend our days indoors, or protect our skin with sunblock. If so, Conzo advises supplementing with 400-800 IUs of vitamin D per day.
Magnesium also has an important role in the absorption of calcium. “Your calcium supplement should contain about half that amount of magnesium”, says Conzo. “I recommend calcium magnesium citrate, a chelated form, which is easier to absorb.”
The Childbearing Years
Fertility places extra demands on the body, and adequate reserves of key nutrients are best for mother and baby alike. That’s why Conzo advises all women in their childbearing years to supplement their diets with at least 400 milligrams of folic acid.
“Folic acid reduces the risk of spinal bifida and other birth defects, so it’s especially important if you might get pregnant”, he says.
Iron is another important supplement for the childbearing years. During pregnancy, women increase their blood volume by approximately 50 percent. Without adequate iron intake, they can easily become anemic. “Also, women who are menstruating lose iron every month, and often benefit from an iron supplement”, says Conzo. “Of course”, he adds, “once women stop menstruating, they might not need that extra iron.” However, it’s best to talk with your doctor about iron supplementation, as the symptoms of iron-deficiency can in fact be related to other issues.