Some health and wellness matters are straightforward. Meditation? A great way to center your chaotic mind. Plenty of fruits and vegetables? You’ve tapped into the secret to a long, balanced life. Exercise? Pretty much every study ever done has proven the more you move, the better.
But others — like whether to take dietary supplements — are so thorny that you can lose an entire afternoon falling down a rabbit hole of conflicting research. Not only do you have to figure out if you should be taking supplements and which ones are the best for your particular stage of life, but there are also an endless number of brands to choose from. How can you know that what you’re putting in your body is actually going to improve your health?
With the help of two women’s health experts, we have sorted through the noise to help you figure out which supplements are worth the investment, and which are best to skip.
First Things First: What’s the Deal with Multivitamins?
The most common supplement is the all-mighty multivitamin. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), multivitamins “account for almost one-sixth of all purchases of dietary supplements and 40% of all sales of vitamin and mineral supplements.” An analysis of data collected between 2011 and 2014 indicated that nearly a third of the U.S. population takes a multivitamin in any given month. But are they necessary?
You won’t be surprised to discover that the answer is: it’s complicated. “They aren't!” says fertility doctor Aimee D. Eyvazzadeh. “If you are eating a well-balanced diet and getting enough of the required nutrients through your food, then no, you don't need a multivitamin.”
The problem is that getting those recommended nutrients is difficult in our modern world. “In a perfect world, we would be eating three organic meals per day and growing our own food,” says naturopathic doctor and Veracity advisor Dr. Gabrielle Francis. “But even if we could be so perfect, the actual problem is that our soil is truly deficient in vitamins and minerals from our current farming methods. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to get our basic nutrients from just diet anymore.”
In addition to agricultural issues, Dr. Francis says the abundance of stress and environmental toxins in our modern day lives further depletes our bodies of nutrients. “Therefore, it is necessary to supplement with whole foods vitamins to protect us,” she says. “A comprehensive multivitamin with a mineral formula is the most important foundation of a solid wellness regime.”
As for Which Multi to Choose…
As anyone who has walked down the supplement aisle at their pharmacy has probably experienced, choosing which brand of multivitamin — or really any other type of vitamin — to take can be overwhelming. There are way too many options. And when it comes to supplements, all are definitely not created equal. Here are a few guidelines to help you choose the right multi for you:
Pick a comprehensive, whole food-based formula: What you want to look for, especially in a multivitamin, is a formula that is comprehensive, meaning it has the whole spectrum of nutrients you need, and derived from whole food sources, which some studies suggest helps the body better absorb the nutrients. “In nature, vitamins don’t occur by themselves,” Dr. Francis explains. “For example, Vitamin C is known as ascorbic acid. But in food and in nature, ascorbic acid always appears in the trace nutrients that support its absorption. So, it is always better to get food-sourced vitamins that provide these micronutrients that enhance the absorption and assimilation into our bodies.”
Choose the right brand: Dr. Francis recommends buying vitamins made by food-based companies that have high standards. This requires doing a little bit of research. “Don’t be fooled by pretty packaging, cool branding, and cosmetic labelling,” she says. “Many companies market themselves as being food-based but are actually skimping on nutrients to help their bottom line.” A few of Dr. Francis’s favorite brands include Love Wellness, Rainbow Light, New Chapter, and Source Naturals.
Buy from a trusted source, not Amazon: “I never recommend buying supplements on Amazon,” Dr. Francis says. “Remember, anyone can sell anything on Amazon. I have seen many people buy counterfeit products and expired products. I have seen people getting products with fake labels on them. Also, Amazon and Google are not doctors — you have to know your dealer!” Instead of Amazon, Dr. Francis recommends you purchase your supplements directly from the manufacturer’s website or the website of your trusted doctor.
Make sure your capsules are BPA-free: Dr. Eyvazzadeh likes her patients to know that taking medications and supplements with capsules or coatings can increase your exposure to the hormone disruptor BPA, which has been used to make certain plastics and resins since the 1960s. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said that BPA is safe at very low levels, research is ongoing and inconclusive. So, when it comes to supplements, it’s best to look for products that specifically state they are BPA-free.
Beyond the Multi: Other Supplements Women Should Know About
Supplements may be controversial, but there are some that many medical experts believe are important for most, if not all, women to take. Dr. Eyvazzadeh’s list includes, “Prenatal vitamins with fish oil, vitamin D, and CoQ10 — I think every woman should take CoQ10.”
Formally known as Coenzyme Q10, CoQ10 is an antioxidant produced naturally in the body and used by cells for growth and maintenance. While naturally occurring CoQ10 decreases with age, it can be found in nutritional sources like meat, fish, and nuts, and in supplements like capsules, tablets, and syrups.
“Most women are waiting until they are over 30 to have babies in our society and this is a time when chromosomal abnormalities increase, coinciding with when CoQ10 levels decrease,” Dr. Eyvazzadeh explains. “CoQ10 is also present in food, so you can make sure you're eating the CoQ10-rich foods and skip the supplement as well.”
Dr. Francis agrees with Eyvazzadeh on the fish oil (she recommends 1 tablespoon per day of fish or flax oil) and also thinks all women should be taking 300-500 mg of magnesium per day, as well as 1,000-5,000 mg of vitamin D3. Magnesium plays a role in over 300 enzyme reactions in the human body related to everything from muscle and nerve function to immune system support, and D3 is a form of vitamin D usually derived from animal sources that may help regulate the amount of calcium in the body, among other important functions.
While not every woman will need to supplement her diet with calcium, it is important to know that the nutrient plays a critical role in female health. A natural mineral found in many foods like dairy, leafy greens, grains, and more, calcium helps maintain strong bones and allows the body to carry out important functions related to nerves, muscles, enzymes, and more.
For women, calcium is particularly crucial because after menopause, they experience greater bone loss and do not absorb the mineral as well. “Calcium requirements change over time because we are less able to retain calcium as we age,” Dr. Eyvazzadeh says. The National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) recommends that women age 50 and younger get 1,000 mg of calcium a day (either from food, supplements, or a combination of the two) and that women age 51 and older get 1,200 mg.
So, What Does This Mean for You? We Have a Cheat Sheet!
For women going through certain life stages, Dr. Francis has some recommends for the supplements she thinks they all should be taking:
Best Supplements for Pregnancy:
Food-based prenatal multivitamin
Ginger for nausea
Best Supplements for Postpartum:
Food-based postnatal multivitamin
Best Supplements for Perimenopause:
Women’s food-based multivitamin
Vitex for ovarian support
Minerals with calcium
Best Supplements for Menopause:
Food-based “Women Over 50” formula
Mineral with high calcium for bone health
Ginko for brain health
CoQ10 for heart health
For those in other life stages or for women who would benefit from taking additional supplements and herbs, the only way to know for sure what you should be taking is to work with a doctor.
“I recommend supplements based on lab testing,” Dr. Francis says. “I think people would benefit from having a relationship with a naturopathic doctor or functional medicine integrative medicine doctor to determine what is best for them.”