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Bridging Your Phytonutrient Gap (The Positive Use of Supplements)

While I’m a strong proponent of getting our nutrition from food, the sad reality is that between what the modern food industry has done to damage the quality of our food in the past 60 years, the fact that most of us are too often too busy to eat optimally, and the additional demands of stress and environmental toxin exposure on our nutrient needs, your diet isn’t always enough to give you all you need.

While you don’t have to pop a handful of pills and capsules every day or spend a fortune on vitamins, minerals, and herbal supplements to be healthy, the nutritional support that supplements provide can help you stay at the top of your wellness game when life is throwing you curve balls that keep you from taking care of yourself as well as you might wish. Supplements can also provide a boost of nutrients that help us during specific times in our life cycles, for example during pregnancy and as we get older.

Based on several decades of research and practice in integrative women’s health, these are the nutrients I often recommend women to supplement daily. Unless otherwise specified, these are safe if you are on medications, pregnant, or nursing.

1. A multivitamin / multimineral supplement to provide overall support and protection. Taking a multivitamin daily helps make sure you have the bases covered. I prefer Rainbow Light Women’s One, which is whole-foods-based, and only requires taking one pill daily. But any whole-foods multi is usually a good bet. Go for non-GMO, organic, and free of dyes, additives, and colorings.

2. Vitamin D3, for a total of 2000-4000 units daily. Vitamin D is responsible for hundreds of functions in the body, from healthy immunity to healthy bones. Vegetarians often ask me about a non-animal source. Unfortunately, I can’t give you a definitive answer as to whether vitamin D2 or lichen-sourced D3 is as usable by the body as animal-based vitamin D3. Although you do get vitamin D from sun exposure, it may not be enough. It’s best to get tested before supplementing so that you know how much you need. Ask your doctor to have your 25,OH-D level checked. An ideal test result should be between 40 and 80.

3. Magnesium. I recommend glycinate unless there is constipation, and if there is, citrate often does the trick, for a daily total of 600 mg daily. Magnesium supports healthy bones, restful sleep, relaxed muscles, and balanced mood.

4. Fish oil, 1-2 capsules daily. Omega-3 fats are important for reducing inflammation, and supporting heart health, mood, mind, hair, and healthy weight maintenance. An alternative source: DHA and/or EPA (plant-based Omega-3s). Vegans can take algae-sourced DHA, such as Life’s DHA. Just keep in mind that DHA is not as easily converted to EPA, so you’ll need to take a higher dose. Rejuvenation Science Labs has a vegan DHA and EPA supplement, which covers both bases, although I have not personally tried this brand.

5. For vegans: Vitamin B12. Daily supplementation of 2.4 micrograms is especially important for vegans since B-12 is not found in unfortified plant-based foods. If taking B12 orally, take it sublingually (under the tongue for quick absorption into the bloodstream). Make sure you choose a B12 in the form of methylcobalamin (check label), since this form of B12 is absorbed best.

If you are frequently tired, run down, get sick easily, feel cold often, have trouble concentrating, or have been a vegan or vegetarian for a long time without paying special attention to your iron needs, you could have iron deficiency anemia. In this case, supplemental iron can make a world of difference in how you feel, but otherwise, women do not need to supplement iron beyond what you get in your diet and multivitamin.

Women who take a prenatal vitamin have healthier pregnancies and healthier babies, and reduce their risk of developing high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, preterm birth, prenatal and postpartum depression. So overall, it’s a great idea to take a general prenatal multivitamin if you’re planning to get pregnant in the next year, or are pregnant now.

Standing in front of the supplement shelves in a health food store is overwhelming. Unfortunately, there are really no guidelines that say “this is a good product and this one isn’t.”  For the most part, because the FDA requires supplement companies to follow what are called Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), we can generally rest assured that what’s on the label is in the product and standards are met by which supplements must be manufactured, prepared, and stored to ensure quality. The GMPs aim to prevent the wrong ingredients from ending up in your supplements, ensure supplements don’t have too much or too little of a dietary ingredient compared to what’s on the label, and prevent excessive contamination levels due to pesticides, heavy metals such as lead, and microbes that you might not want in your supplement. I recommend selecting a couple of companies you like and that are considered reputable (for example, they are sold at a high quality store like Whole Foods) and sticking with those for most of your needs. You can ask your integrative doctor, your nutritionist, or the nutrition department staff at your local health food store — see what products they recommend most often and confidently.

Remember, foods are our most important source of nutrition. But many of us can use a little extra boost of just a few nutrients to keep us humming happily along. The general vitamins and minerals mentioned in this article, with a few extra supplements for digestion, can take you from feeling pretty good to feeling really great.

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