Dietary supplement use in the United States is prevalent and represents an important source of nutrition. Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet should provide all the individual nutrients you need. However, not everyone has a good diet, so some of those nutrients might be deficient.
As women— and more importantly, healthy and fit women— we are inundated with contradictory nutritional and medical claims about vitamins, anti-aging supplements and dietary supplements to improve our overall health. Dietary supplements are vitamins, minerals, herbs and other substances meant to improve your diet and/or overall health and fitness level. They can come as pills, capsules, powders and liquids. Some supplements can play an important role in health. For example, pregnant women can take the vitamin folic acid to prevent certain birth defects in their babies.
Many women wonder if they should take extra calcium and iron, or if they should simply take a daily multivitamin. Most women who work out and desire to have a muscular toned physique are confused as to whether they need every supplement sitting on the shelves of their nutrition store. Most women simply do not know what is truly important and useful to consume and what is purely a waste of money! I have decided to put together my Top 10 List of what I believe as a woman, physiologist and fitness competitor to be the most beneficial dietary and nutritional supplements.
Flaxseed and Fish Oil
Flax oil and fish oil are both sources of omega-3 essential fatty acids. However, the two types of oils are different in the types of omega-3 fatty acids they provide.
Fish oil can be obtained from eating fish or by taking supplements. Fish that are abundant in the beneficial oils known as omega-3 fatty acids include mackerel, tuna, salmon, sturgeon, mullet, bluefish, anchovy, sardines, herring, trout and menhaden. They provide about 1 gram of omega-3 fatty acids in every 3.5 ounces of fish. Fish oil supplements are usually made from mackerel, herring, tuna, halibut, salmon, cod liver, whale blubber or seal blubber.
Fish oil is most often used for conditions related to the heart and blood system. Some people use fish oil to lower blood pressure or triglyceride levels. Fish oil also has preventative measures for heart disease or stroke. The scientific evidence suggests that fish oil really does lower high triglycerides, and it also seems to help prevent heart disease and stroke when taken in the recommended amounts. Fish oil helps to fight symptoms of depression, psychosis, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Alzheimer’s disease and other thinking disorders. Women sometimes take fish oil to prevent painful periods, breast pain, and complications associated with pregnancy such as miscarriage, high blood pressure late in pregnancy and early delivery.
Fish oil is also used for diabetes, asthma, developmental coordination disorders, movement disorders, dyslexia, obesity, kidney disease, weak bones (osteoporosis), certain diseases related to pain and swelling such as psoriasis, and preventing weight loss. Some evidence shows that eating fish improves weight loss and decreases blood sugar in overweight people and people with high blood pressure. Preliminary research also shows that taking a specific fish oil supplement significantly decreases body fat when combined with exercise. The proper dosage of fish oil for achieving fat loss is 1.5 to 2.0 grams per day (although some suggest you should consider bodyweight when choosing the dosage, i.e., 1 gram total fish oil for each 20 pounds bodyweight, so a bigger person might go with as much as 3.0 grams).
Flaxseed adds valuable fiber to the diet, promoting good digestive function. In addition, flaxseed is one of the few non-seafood sources of alpha linoleic acid, one of the essential omega-3 fatty acids that has been identified as a basic building block of cells. Omega-3 is used in the formation of every cell in the body, and is especially important in the formation of neural and brain cells. Flax contains high levels of polyunsaturated fats. A full 42 percent of flaxseed is oil, and 70 percent of that is the healthful polyunsaturated fat. Flaxseed is one of the most potent sources of omega-3 fatty acid, particularly for those that limit their intake of animal foods. The health benefits of flaxseed include reduced cholesterol, improved diabetes, decreased risk of cancer and heart disease, diminished inflammation, lessened menstrual symptoms, increased immune system function and reduced symptoms of depression.
Flaxseed can also help to manage your weight by combating constipation. Flax is very high in fiber. Fiber helps to keep weight down in several ways: first, high-fiber foods have what’s called low energy density, which means fewer calories relative to the total weight of the food. Essentially, you can eat more of high-fiber foods without worrying about calorie overload. In addition to being low-calorie, foods that are high in fiber are also more filling. Our bodies absorb fiber more slowly than other food compounds, which mean that we feel full longer when we eat it.
Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that keeps your nerves and red blood cells healthy. It is needed to convert carbohydrates into glucose in the body, thus leading to energy production and a decrease in fatigue and exhaustion in the body. It also helps in healthy regulation of the nervous system, reducing depression and stress. Another reason to take vitamin B12 is to maintain a healthy digestive system and protect against heart disease by reducing unhealthy cholesterol levels, protecting against stroke and high blood pressure. Vitamin B12 is vital for healthy skin, hair and nails. It helps in cell reproduction and constant renewal of the skin. It also helps protect against cancers including breast, colon and lung.
It is possible for people to develop a vitamin B12 deficiency. This deficiency is usually reported with symptoms of fatigue. Strict vegetarians, heavy drinkers and smokers, pregnant and breast-feeding women, and the elderly usually require vitamin B12 supplements. Sometimes our body, mainly our digestive system, is not able to absorb this vitamin well. This can happen when a person has a type of gastrointestinal problem, such as pernicious anemia, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, bacteria growth in the small intestine, or a parasite. People suffering from these conditions could benefit from vitamin B12. A vitamin B12 deficiency can result in a host of illnesses like anemia, fatigue, weakness, constipation, loss of appetite, weight loss, depression, poor memory, soreness of the mouth, asthma and vision problems. However, vitamin B12 deficiency is rare, as the liver stores enough reserves to last a couple of years. The Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for Vitamin B12 for women is 2.4 micrograms daily. Pregnant women should take 2.6 micrograms, and lactating women should consume 2.8 micrograms daily.
Taking vitamins may not make you feel better if you suffer from a hormonal imbalance. Hormonal balance is especially critical for maintaining health in women over the age of 35 by balancing estrogen and progesterone. Dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, is a steroid hormone synthesized from cholesterol and secreted by the adrenal glands. DHEA is a very powerful precursor to all of your major sex hormones: estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. It is the source that fuels the body’s metabolic pathway. The production of DHEA becomes less as we age.
Besides DHEA, your adrenals also make the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Adrenal exhaustion from coping with chronic stress, poor nutrition, dieting and emotional turmoil means your adrenals are exhausted from excess productions of cortisol and they simply can’t manufacture enough DHEA to support a healthy hormonal balance. You become overwhelmed and, often, depressed and fatigued. Your lifestyle, diet and stress levels all contribute to the amount of DHEA your body can produce in a given period. Many women have some indication of adrenal imbalance, including symptoms of low DHEA levels, such as:
Decrease in muscle mass
Decrease in bone density
Loss of libido
Without a comprehensive medical test, it’s impossible to know your DHEA levels. Just because you’re getting older doesn’t automatically mean you’re deficient. Remember, this is a natural substance and our bodies can produce more or less of it depending on our nutrient support, metabolism, hormonal balance, activity level and emotional state. Many of the over-the-counter DHEA supplements have very high dosages— way too high for most women. I think it’s especially unwise to experiment with DHEA at these levels without medical supervision. Furthermore, taking DHEA alone won’t do any good if your adrenals are exhausted. There are too many other factors at work. You need to know the status of your adrenal function and your other hormones before you can even begin to know what kind of combination of support your body needs. Make an appointment with your doctor or medical practitioner and ask to get your hormones levels tested so you will know how to proceed.
Glutamine is an amino acid (building blocks of protein) found in the muscles of the body. In fact, it is the most abundant free amino acid. Glutamine is classified as a semi-essential amino acid, which means that under normal circumstances the body can manufacture it on its own to meet the physiological demands. However, there are times that glutamine becomes an essential amino acid due to metabolic stress situations like exercise, trauma, cancer, burns and sepsis. Under such conditions, it is important that there is an adequate intake of glutamine to meet the increased demand created by these situations. Glutamine appears to be necessary for normal brain function. It is used by white blood cells and contributes to normal immune system function. Glutamine assists in protecting the body from ammonia toxicity, which increases during exercise. It is essential for maintaining amino acid balance in the body during times of severe stress, including exercise. Most glutamine in the body is stored in skeletal muscle, and it is known to preserve lean muscle in supplementation form (L-glutamine). During exercise the body is in a net catabolic state, so glutamine helps to prevent protein degradation and loss of muscle. The recommended daily dosage varies, but for most people 5-20 grams per day is sufficient.
Vitamin C (also known as ascorbic acid) is a water-soluble vitamin. Unlike most mammals, humans don’t have the ability to make their own vitamin C, so we must get it from what we eat. Vitamin C is particularly important for the adrenal glands because they are among the organs with the highest concentration of vitamin C in the body. It’s also needed in the production of collagen, an important ingredient in the skin, gums, teeth, tendons, blood vessels, bone and ligaments, because it acts in partnership with eight enzymes involved in collagen formation.
Vitamin C is extremely necessary for producing energy in the body’s cells. Even in small quantities, vitamin C protects the body’s lipids (fats), proteins and carbohydrates from damage by free radicals and oxidative damage, because it gives the body a way to get rid of toxins produced during normal metabolic processes, as well as from chemicals we ingest, and from pollution. The recommended daily dose can range from 1,000-2,000 milligrams.
Green Tea Extract
The catechins in green tea extract protect your body against respiratory and digestive infections, help to lower high blood pressure, reduce cholesterol (especially LDLs) and even fight cavities! Green tea contains chemicals known as polyphenols, which have antioxidant properties. Green tea is also correlated to fat loss. Green tea has thermogenic properties and promotes fat oxidation due to its caffeine content, which increases thermogenesis. Thermogenesis is the process of the body burning fuel (fat) without making chemical energy (the calories are released as heat).
Being healthy and fit can cause significant joint problems, especially if you are a fitness/figure competitor or endurance athlete. In addition to fish oil and omega-3s, glucosamine is a supplement, which is used by many active people to support joint function. Glucosamine, produced naturally in the body, plays a key role in building cartilage, the tough connective tissue that cushions the joints. Glucosamine supports flexibility and increases mobility of your joints. Greater flexibility allows for a greater range of motion in our joints and muscles, which helps to give us better results during strength training and decrease the risk of injuries to the joints, tendons, ligaments and muscles. A daily dosage of 1,500 milligrams is sufficient for joint health.
Protein is one of the body’s main building blocks for muscle, bone, skin and other tissues. Protein shakes are often used by a variety of athletes. Using an isolate whey protein powder in between your meals is a great way to fight hunger cravings and get your daily amount of protein while you are training. Whey or soy protein comes in many combinations of protein, carbohydrates and fats. They can range from 100 percent protein to mostly carbohydrates with a little added protein and fat. Whey protein shakes are ideal for meal replacement and muscle recovery. An athletic female will want to find a tasty whey or soy protein powder that has a breakdown of approximately 150 calories, 3 grams of fat, 5 grams of carbohydrates, and 25 grams of protein per scoop.
Thermogenic Fat Burner
Although fat burners are not necessary, they can be helpful in boosting metabolism by increasing thermogenesis and assisting in weight loss. Not only do weight loss supplements help burn fat, but they also may suppress appetite. Taking fat burners may also boost energy levels while helping to increase focus and concentration. Some people, however, can experience unfavorable side effects from taking fat burners because they are cardiovascular stimulants. Some of these side effects include headaches, jitteriness, severely increased heart rate and blood pressure, seizure, heart attack and death. Try USP Labs OxyELITE Pro or Therma Gold from Champion Nutrition. A word of caution— fat burners are not for everyone and are pretty intensive supplements, so talk to your physician before taking any over-the-counter fat burner.
Natural Sleep Supplements
Sleep is such a necessary aspect of life and is essential to our health. It is recommended that we get 8 hours of sleep every night, and I cannot stress enough the importance of adequate sleep, especially if you are an athlete. Getting the appropriate amount of sleep is just as important as your training and meals! Effects of chronic sleep deprivation include weight gain due to increased cortisol levels, and excessive cortisol release leads to a lowered testosterone:cortisol ratio, a prime marker of anabolic status and the ability to recover from exercise and build muscle. Further, as cortisol continues to increase, chances for muscle atrophy, impaired immunity, vitamin depletion and increased blood pressure occur.
However, sometimes we are so “geared” up from training that our bodies cannot rest to fall asleep and stay asleep. Throughout my competitive years, I found it necessary to take a natural sleep supplement. Melatonin and valerian root are very safe and effective natural sleep aids to help you relax and get your zzzz’s.
So those are Dr. G’s Top 10 Favorite vitamins and dietary supplements. Remember, to take a supplement as safely as possible, you should:
Tell your doctor about any dietary supplements you use
Do not take a bigger dose than the label recommends
Stop taking it if you have side effects
Read trustworthy information about the supplement
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