Dr Paul Clayton 2014
Your body needs 13 types of what are called essential vitamins and at least as many different types of essential minerals in order to function properly.
But a multi-vitamin supplement for women that simply lists all the vitamins and minerals isn’t necessarily an effective long term supplement. It’s more complicated than that.
The best multivitamin will contain bio-available nutrients that are easily and efficiently absorbed by the body. Does the product contain vitamins and minerals in their most absorbable forms? For example, does it include vitamin K2 and D3 – both superior to other forms?
The best vitamins and minerals work together to improve your health, but they must be in an optimum amount and proportion to each other for best results and absorption.
For example, the body absorbs iron through the help of vitamin C.
Vitamins E and C work synergistically, but need to be in the right ratio. Vitamin D helps the body absorb phosphorus and calcium.
Glucosamine – which is not in an A-Z vitamin pill – is not particularly effective unless it is combined with vitamins D, K and flavonoids, which are important nutrients derived from fruits and vegetables.
Of course, the best nutritional supplements for women will include folic acid at the level of 200 mcg a day, because birth defects like spina bifida are less common in the infants of women who start taking folic acid supplements prior to conception. Increased folic acid intake may also decrease the risk of some types of cancer, especially in those who drink alcoholic beverages.
The best multivitamin levels
RDAs – Recommended Daily Amounts – were established at levels to prevent deficiency. The RDA for vitamin C will prevent the deficiency disease of scurvy and the RDA for Vitamin D will prevent rickets.
But the levels were never designed for optimum long term health. There is good evidence that some of the recommended levels are too low to sustain good long term-health – vitamins C, D and E are cases in point.
Beyond A-Z to the best multi-vitamin, multi-mineral and multi-nutrient supplement
The A-Z vitamins and minerals are by no means the only nutrients that are critical for health.
For example, they ignore the important omega-3s from fish oil and a wide range of phytonutrients. These are nutrients found in fruits and vegetables that include polyphenols, flavonoids and carotenoids. High levels of flavonoids are found in green tea extract, grapeseed extract and curcumin. Carotenoids include beta carotene, lutein and lycopene. There is strong evidence for all these as health protective.
A comprehensive supplement for women
So what would be in an ideal health supplement? One that prevented short-term deficiency, provided the vitamins for increased energy levels, recognised your needs as a woman and also gave you the nutritional elements that guarded your long term health?
It would certainly include omega 3 fatty acids and the polyphenols, two classes of nutrient that have critically important anti-inflammatory properties.
The importance of anti-inflammatory nutrients
Why do we need anti-inflammatory nutrients? Because they protect us against called ‘chronic sub-clinical inflammation’, an insidious and invisible process that develops in our tissues and which is now known to drive all the degenerative diseases, from cancer to Alzheimer’s to heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and osteoporosis; not to mention ageing of the skin, and indeed the bulk of the ageing process itself.
READ MORE on inflammation as a key driver of age-related diseases.
There is overwhelming evidence that Omega 3 fish oil is heart-protective, helps to protect brain function and has a role to play in reducing the risk of cancer. But few people have sufficient Omega 3 in their normal diet. You would need to eat 3-4 portions of oily fish such as herring, mackerel, sardines or wild salmon (not farmed) a week.
There is equally good evidence to support the importance of polyphenols to our long-term health. So much so that the American Cancer Society and many other authorities now recommend nine portions of fruit and vegetables a day!
Preventing deficiency is not enough
It now becomes much clearer why a truly effective supplement needs to go beyond a simple vitamin and mineral pill.
Up to the age of about 50, the best multivitamin nutritional supplement should ensure you have a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals, PLUS adequate Omega 3 fish oil, PLUS anti-inflammatory polyphenols including flavonoids.
You need these elements even in your 30s and 40s, because over time, inflammation causes slowly progressive damage in the tissues. That’s why skin ages. But even more seriously the symptoms of heart disease or osteoporosis, for example, may only become overt in your 60’s or 70s – but the damage leading up to the emergence of clinical symptoms will have been gradually accumulating for decades.
After the menopause, women need even more multivitamins, minerals and nutrients
Over the age of 50, when the powers of healing and regeneration are no longer as effective as they were in your youth, there are further protective supplement steps you can take. For example, the evidence for lutein as having a protective effect for eyes is persuasive and the laboratory research for the anti-cancer effect of lycopene is increasingly convincing.
I would also add betaine. This is a little known nutrient, but in combination with certain B vitamins like folic acid, helps lower homocysteine levels – and lower homocysteine levels in the blood are linked to lower heart disease risk. This is especially important for women after the menopause, when the risk of heart disease becomes equal to that of men.
I would then add Co-enzyme Q10 – which helps the transfer of energy from food – and therefore helps combat tiredness.
Isoflavones are a particular nutritional compound in soy, and are one of the dietary elements that contribute to the generally better health and life expectancy of Japanese women.
The world’s healthiest diets for women
All these nutrients occur in high levels in the diets of those societies that have a long life expectancy and health expectancy – and overall, it’s a combination designed to reproduce the elements in an ideal diet.
Although food and supplements cannot treat or cure age-related disease, they can create a climate in the body where disease is less likely to develop or worsen, and where the body’s own ability to heal itself is supported.
Should the best multivitamins for women contain iron?
Generally, vitamin and mineral supplements labelled as being especially for women or men are marketing gimmicks. We’re all human and we all need the almost the same vitamins and minerals.
The only exception is iron. Iron in men and post-menopausal women can potentially accumulate to the point where it becomes pro-inflammatory and pro-oxidative, so I would not include it in an all-purpose supplement. But pre-menopausal women should include it.
Some women may also benefit from extra calcium, although if you have regular dairy products and leafy green vegetables you should have adequate calcium.
Specialist supplements for eyes, skin, bones, heart or brain?
Another marketing ploy to get you to buy more products! Why try to protect one vital organ and leave others undefended? Especially when the secret of brain, eye, heart and indeed sexual health, lies in reducing the tissue damage inflicted by chronic inflammation.
You can now see why a simple A-Z vitamin and mineral pill is NOT the best nutritional supplement for women – or men. These have little impact on reducing long-term age-related illness. They are only designed to avoid deficiency diseases, with little or no anti-inflammatory effect and so cannot combat the key driver of age-related health decline, namely chronic inflammation.
Only a comprehensive nutrient support programme can do that.