By Karla Walsh
Yes, it’s possible to get all the nutrition you need from food, but lots of women still fall short.
“Many of the most commonly-slighted vitamins and minerals are key to keeping the body functioning properly,” says Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an epidemiologist with Cambia Health Solutions. “The best way to determine which supplements you might need is to keep a diet record—it doesn’t have to be precise on serving sizes, just a general overview of what you eat on a day-to-day basis—and review it with a dietitian.” From there, they can suggest supplements if needed.
How to Choose the Best Supplements for Women
The full story can’t be told by looking at the label. “The supplement world is the wild west, with very little oversight, a lot of overblown claims, and many products that contain less or more than listed on the label,” Dixon says.
High-quality dietary supplements will note that they:
- Were made in a facility that follows “GMP,” or good manufacturing practices, which are guidelines set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), or…
- Meet US Pharmacopeia (USP) standards
It’s even better if the product has been tested by an independent, third-party laboratory, such as consumerlab.com, Dixon says, in order to verify that the product is well-made, breaks down in a way the body can actually absorb, contains what is indicated on the label, and is free of potentially harmful or toxic substances, such as heavy metals or other contaminants.
“But these steps don’t tell you if a dietary supplement will have the intended effects,” Dixon says. “For example, if a supplement is marketed to ‘support digestion,’ how can you tell if it will, in fact, support your digestion?” She says to check out the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements. “Their dietary supplement fact sheets will give basic information on research regarding a particular supplement.”
Now that you know what to look for, here are the best supplements for women:
Best supplement for women in cold, cloudy climates: Vitamin D
Live in an area with not a lot of sunlight (most of the U.S. come winter) or slather on sunscreen religiously (hat tip to you!)? You’re likely lacking in vitamin D, as the skin needs sun exposure to produce its own to complement the D you get in your diet in things like fish, eggs, mushrooms, and dairy.
Vitamin D supports your bone density, mood, energy, and immune health, says Stephanie Gray, DNP, MS, a functional medicine nurse practitioner and owner of Integrative Health and Hormone Clinic in Iowa. Of course, it also helps you absorb calcium.
But the latest research suggests that if your vitamin D levels are normal, adding more won’t improve your health. “Ask your doctor for a vitamin D blood test, and if you’re low, supplement with 1,000 to 2,000 IU per day,” Dixon says. “Don’t take more than 4,000 IU per day, the tolerable upper levels for vitamin D.”
Buy it: Pure Encapsulations 25 mcG/1,000 IU Vitamin D3 ($12 for 60, amazon.com)
Or if you want a combo of vitamins and minerals, try the SugarBear multi ($30 for 1-month supply amazon.com).
Best supplement for women trying to conceive: Folate
“Folate supports the healthy development of the fetal brain and spinal column, so your folate needs are high around the time of conception,” Gray says. “Supplementing with bioactive 5 methyltetrahydrofolates [5-MTHF, found in the supplement recommended below] allows for the bypassing of steps in folate metabolism, which may be especially beneficial in those with digestive concerns.” Aim for a minimum of 1,000 mcg if you’re trying to get pregnant.
Buy it: NOW Foods 5,000 mcg Methyl Folate ($22 for 50, amazon.com)
Best supplement for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding: Omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to health, Gray explains. In addition to supporting eye and brain health, keeping your mood on an even keel, and reducing menstrual pain, they’re vital for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers to help the cognitive development of the child (and to prevent food allergies in the little one, according to the latest research).
“Omega-3s have tremendous cardiovascular benefits, may boost your mood, can help reduce insulin resistance, and tame inflammation caused by autoimmune diseases,” Gray says.
Discover how to incorporate omega-3s into every meal, and consider a supplement if you’re not so fresh on seafood or don’t nosh on a lot of nuts.
“When looking for a supplement, choose one that contains both DHA and EPA,” Gray says. “DHA supports optimal hormone signaling and EPA helps decrease inflammation.” Start with a dose of 500 mg per day—after checking with your doctor, of course.
Buy it: Life’s Abundance Fish Oil (Liquid) ($70, nutritiouslife.com)
Best supplement for women who avoid dairy: Calcium
Critical for bone and muscle health, most women score at least half of what they need from food. “But if you don’t consume dairy or a wide variety of whole plant foods, including green leafy vegetables, you may come up short,” Dixon says. We also lose a little bit of calcium each day via our skin, hair, and nails as they grow and get scratched off, brushed out, or trimmed, respectively.
Since you probably only need to “top off” your calcium intake by getting a bit more from supplements, pick a product that only supplies a portion of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) per dose based on your dietitian or doctor’s recommendation.
“That way, you end up taking 500 mg from supplements and rely on your diet for the remaining 500 mg,” Dixon says. “If you supplement all 1,000 mg, you’re probably overdoing it, and you’ll end up getting too much calcium.” Plus, calcium is best absorbed by the body in 600 mg doses or less, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation.
Buy it: Solgar 250 mg Calcium Citrate with Vitamin D3 ($11 for 120, amazon.com)
Best supplement for women who struggle with stress: Magnesium
Until you can book a trip to one of these zen retreats, you may want to consider getting a little chill-out help from this calming mineral.
“Half of your magnesium is found in your bones,” Gray says. “It’s important for bone density, it’s necessary for hormone production, and it can help with sleep as it relaxes your mind. It can help relax your muscles and even maximize heart and nerve health.”
Just be careful about how much magnesium you take as a supplement, Dixon warns, as magnesium can have a strong laxative effect.
“If that occurs, simply reduce your dose. This is less likely to happen when taking a capsule amino acid chelated mineral form like magnesium glycinate,” Gray says.
Buy it: NOW 400 mg Magnesium Supplements ($9 for 180, amazon.com)