Without a doubt, women wear many hats. Whether it’s being a mother, daughter, sister, partner, friend, business woman, business owner (…or all of the above), there’s a lot to juggle! From grocery shopping and cooking dinner to meeting deadlines and maintaining a full calendar of events, there’s a lot of output — and unfortunately, often little input to replenish. By this, we mean to say, there’s significant research to show how women tend to prioritize the needs of others over their own. And, it comes at a costly price. A study published in the Journal of Women’s Health found that women who reported a higher level of caregiving responsibilities were more likely to experience fatigue and sleep problems, which have been shown to contribute to nutrient deficiencies and other health issues. Plus, when compared to men, additional research suggests women are more likely to prioritize their family’s health over their own, even when they themselves were experiencing health problems.
And we haven’t even touched on the biological demands placed on women (such as menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause). The takeaway here? Women are particularly susceptible to nutrient deficiencies due to the demands placed on their bodies and lifestyles. Which, as we’ve seen, can have serious consequences in all areas, including sleep, energy, and even mental health.
The good news? By prioritizing our health and well-being with things such as proper nutrition, exercise, and stress management, we women can better support ourselves, our loved ones, and even our communities!
Ahead, learn the most common types of nutrient deficiencies in women, according to an expert, and the implications they can have on your health and well-being. Plus, tips to nourish your body, optimize your nutrient intake, and support your overall health!
The Top Contributors to Nutrient Deficiencies in Women
While there are numerous factors that can contribute to nutrient deficiencies in women, here are some of the top causes:
- Inadequate Dietary Intake: Not consuming enough essential nutrients! This can stem from dieting, skipping meals, or simply not eating enough nutrient-dense foods.
- Poor Absorption: Maybe you’re consuming enough of a nutrient, but not able to absorb it properly.
- Increased Nutrient Needs: If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you’re going to have higher nutrient needs! Without proper supplementation or dietary modifications, this can make women more susceptible to nutrient deficiencies.
- Chronic Stress: Are we really surprised that stress is a culprit?! Chronic stress can impact the body’s ability to absorb and utilize nutrients, leading to deficiencies over time. Plus, stress can affect appetite and food choices, leading to increased cravings for unhealthy foods.
- Chronic Dieting: To no surprise, restrictive diets and inadequate calorie intake can result in nutrient deficiencies over time
Top Female Nutrient Deficiencies, According to an Expert
For expert advice, we spoke with Dr. Rachel Heussner, Naturopathic Doctor at Four Moons Spa, a modern beauty, healing, and wholeness SPAce in San Diego, CA. Dr. Heussner specializes in women’s health, gastrointestinal conditions, and mental health, and provides invaluable insight into how women can best support their health.
The Most Common Nutrient Deficiencies in Women
According to Dr. Heussner, the top nutrient deficiencies in women include:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin B6
It’s important to remember this is not a one-size-fits-all statement. All women are unique, with varying lifestyles and individual needs! That said, let’s take a look at some of the most common nutrient deficiencies in women.
“Magnesium is one the most essential minerals as it is needed for hundreds of biochemical functions in the body”, says Heussner. “It has a role in energy production, bone and protein synthesis, glutathione production, blood sugar balancing, blood pressure regulation, muscle contractions, and nerve functions.”
Yet, unfortunately, a large population of women are magnesium deficient. While there are many contributing factors, soil depletion and environmental factors have caused magnesium content in fruits and vegetables to plummet over the last few decades, according to Heussner.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Found in foods like fatty fish, walnuts, and chia seeds, “Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for healthy cell membranes, brain health, cardiovascular and immune functioning, and hormone production,” says Heussner. “[Omega-3’s] are anti-inflammatory, but often not consumed in the right ratio with omega-6 fatty acids, which are pro-inflammatory. The Standard American diet is filled with Omega-6 fatty acids found in processed foods and vegetable oils, therefore causing a higher prevalence of Omega-6 over Omega-3 fatty acids.”
Let’s not forget about the mental health benefits, too. “Low levels of Omega-3’s have been linked to many mental health conditions (such as ADHD, depression, and anxiety). So, boosting your intake can decrease inflammation and cortisol, (which can be inflammatory at high levels) thus, reducing the risk of depression.”
“Vitamin D is another common nutrient deficiency seen worldwide,” says Heussner. Despite being attainable through diet, supplementation, and sunlight, 50% of the population is estimated to have insufficient levels of vitamin D. Particularly problematic for women, as vitamin D is important for a variety of factors, including “bone building, immune function, supporting hormone health, and overall health”.
The 5 Most Essential Nutrients for Women
While all women have varying needs (not to mention various dietary preferences), there are some must-have vitamins and minerals all women should prioritize. According to Heussner, these are the top five nutrients for women that play a critical role in female health.
“Iron deficiency is the most prevalent nutrient deficiency worldwide and can lead to anemia, a condition caused by lower production of red blood cells,” says Heussner. “Women, in general, are at a higher risk of iron deficiency as the need for iron increases with menstrual blood loss.”
Plus, there are other risk factors to be aware of, such as diets low in B12 and folate. “Those who eat primarily vegan and vegetarian diets may be at an increased risk of iron deficiency or anemia from lack of iron in the diet,” says Heussner. And, the signs aren’t always obvious. Fatigue is the most common symptom associated with iron-deficiency anemia, with other signs including “heart palpitations, weakness, insomnia, brain fog, mood disturbances, dizziness, and hair loss”.
Omega 3-Fatty Acids
“For women, omega-3’s are vital for healthy hormones and reproductive health,” says Heussner. Yet, it’s one of the most common nutrient deficiencies! “Omega-3’s are needed to make the backbone of all sex hormones, including estrogen and progesterone. [But with so many deficiencies,] we see many women experiencing issues with hormonal imbalances, causing infertility and menstrual irregularities.” In fact, painful menstrual cramping is often due to an overproduction of inflammatory molecules that results from the imbalance of omega-3’s to omega-6 fatty acids, says Heussner.
According to Heussner, by simply increasing Omega-3’s from food sources and supplementation, research shows a decrease in cramping and painful periods. Plus, higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower triglycerides and balance cholesterol, lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease in women.
Another benefit for women? “Proper amounts of Omega-3’s provide the body with the building blocks for proper hormone synthesis. Not to mention Omega-3 fatty acids increase blood flow to the placenta and uterus, improving fertility and birth outcomes.” All this to say, omega-3s are a must-have for women!
Nicknamed the ‘Sunshine Vitamin’, vitamin D plays a role in mood and mental health, and is made in your skin when you are exposed to sunlight. Thus, when out of balance, “low levels may increase anxiety and depression. This is particularly important for women experiencing mood changes linked with PMS or around their cycle.”
And it’s “especially crucial in postmenopausal women,” says Heussner, “as it is needed for calcium absorption for the strengthening of bones.”
“As women age, vitamin D deficiency increases the risk of osteopenia and osteoporosis, increasing a woman’s risk of fractures and falls. Deficiencies may also cause insomnia, heart disease, high blood pressure, autoimmune conditions, and diabetes.”
And when it comes to women’s reproductive health, “vitamin D is needed for sex hormone production. Low levels of vitamin D have been correlated with imbalances in estrogen and testosterone.”
Let’s talk B Vitamins. These water-soluble vitamins are an absolute must when it comes to nutrients for women! According to Heussner, some of the biggies include: vitamins B6, B9, and B12.
Vitamin B6 is especially helpful for maintaining a proper balance of estrogen and progesterone, says Heussner. “Often women experiencing infertility or other hormonal imbalances need vitamin B6 to restore healthy levels. Plus, it’s an important vitamin for brain health and development. “Vitamin B6 plays a role in mood, as it is needed to make certain neurotransmitters like serotonin. Mood disorders seen in PMS and around a women’s cycle may indicate a need for vitamin B6,” says Heussner.
Also known as folate, vitamin B9 “is critical during pregnancy for the developing fetus,” says Heussner. “Low levels of folate during pregnancy increase the risk of certain birth defects, such as spina bifida, a birth defect which inhibits proper spinal cord formation.”
Present only in animal sources or fortified foods, “vitamin B12 plays a major role in forming red blood cells, energy production, nerve and brain health, and a healthy stress response”. According to Heussner, most women are not getting enough B12 from diet alone, especially if they are vegan or vegetarian.
From stress to sleep, “magnesium is involved in over 300 biochemical reactions in the body. It plays a role in reducing stress and muscle tension, can help with period cramps as it relaxes uterine contraction, and is great for relaxing the nervous system,” says Heussner.
And considering many women deal with insomnia and digestive issues, most women can benefit from certain forms of magnesium. Since most people are not getting enough magnesium through diet alone, I often recommend a magnesium supplement. There are combinations of different forms of magnesium to target different body systems — from nervous system support, to energy, and even constipation. “Magnesium glycinate alone is great for relaxing the nervous system,” says Heussner.
This mighty mineral is an important modulator for stress and nervous system regulation. Plus, “magnesium plays a role in blood sugar balancing. So with low levels of magnesium, we see poor blood sugar management, which can increase anxiety and depression prevalence and symptoms,” says Heussner.
The Best Food-Based Nutrient Sources & Nutritional Supplements For Women
Good news, eating a nutrient-rich diet full of whole foods is one of the best ways to meet your nutritional needs and avoid deficiencies! And if you’re lacking in areas (due to dietary restrictions or lifestyle factors), there are some quality supplements that can help fill the gaps.
According to Dr. Rachel Heussner, here’s how women can maximize their nutrient intake with high-quality food sources and nutritional supplements.
#1 Prioritize Healthy Fats
By prioritizing healthy fats, you can help to boost your intake of omega-3s. This includes foods such as:
- Wild-caught fatty fish (like salmon and sardines)
If you’re lacking in these foods or deficient in omega-3s, “often an omega-3 fish oil supplement from a trusted source is needed to really boost levels and to lower inflammation”.
#2 Supplement with Vitamin D
If possible, try spending a few daily minutes in the sunshine to boost your Vitamin D, especially if you’re feeling low, or during the dark winter months! “Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to mental health issues, primarily depression. We see this commonly in Seasonal Affective Disorder, where in times of the year with less sunlight, there’s an increased prevalence of depression,” says Heussner.
As for your diet, add in vitamin D-rich foods, such as salmon, mackerel, and egg yolks.
If you’re deficient in vitamin D, it’s best to add a high-quality Vitamin D3 supplement.
- Expert ND Tip: it’s best to take your Vitamin D supplement with a meal since it is a fat-soluble vitamin!
#3 Add Iron-Rich Foods
To get your daily dose of iron, it’s best to add in iron-rich foods. This includes foods such as:
- Grass-fed beef
- Pumpkin seeds
I often recommend an iron supplement to women while they are bleeding during their menstrual cycle to boost iron stores, says Heussner. “Additionally, we need to add in vitamin C or citrus foods to boost iron absorption, especially if consuming non-heme forms of iron found in plant-based sources like spinach and legumes.”
If you’re making leafy greens for dinner, try adding a squeeze of lemon juice. Or, toss some fresh citrus into a spinach-filed smoothie!
#4 Power Your Plate with Protein
Another nutrient deficiency many women lack? Protein.
High-quality protein like organic pasture-raised chicken and poultry, wild-caught fish, pasture-raised eggs, grass-fed beef, and organic soy and tempeh [are great options],” says Heussner.
“Protein is essential for hormones and maintaining muscle tone. Often I see women struggling with fertility are not eating enough calories and not getting enough protein in to support healthy hormone levels. If you do not eat enough for yourself, your body won’t have enough to contribute to the developing fetus.”
Here are some tips:
- Eat a small protein-rich snack before bed if you tend to wake up throughout the night
- Aim for a protein-packed breakfast with at least 25 grams of protein to ensure blood sugar stability, healthy energy, and a stable mood throughout the day
#5 Balance With Your B’s
“The adrenal glands love vitamin B6, so it is crucial for stressed-out women that need support. I have found this vitamin gets used up quickly during times of stress and needs to be replaced with supplementation,” says Heussner. Plus, B vitamins, in general (particularly B12 and B6), along with vitamins C and D, help regulate the adrenal glands. “With lower levels of these vitamins, we see higher cortisol and stress patterns.”
For women eating primarily plant-based diets, a B12 supplement may be necessary! If you’re noticing changes in your mood, you may be deficient in vitamin B6. Try adding more B6-rich foods such as salmon, spinach, and sweet potato to your diet.
Know the Risks: Common Signs and Symptoms That May Indicate a Nutrient Deficiency
According to Dr. Rachel Heussner, here are some common signs and symptoms linked to nutrient deficiencies in women:
- Hair loss
- Mood changes
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
- Cognitive impairment
- Poor wound healing
- Dry, itchy skin
- Canker sores
- Frequent infections/low immune function
In severe cases, signs and health conditions include:
- Bruising, bleeding gums as seen in Scurvy, a condition linked to severe vitamin C deficiency
- Rickets, a condition linked to vitamin D deficiency
- Beriberi, a condition linked to vitamin B1 deficiency
- Thyroid goiters, a condition linked to iodine deficiency
The Top 10 Tips To Nourish Your Body, According to An Expert
Finally, some easy-to-implement expert takeaway tips!
#1 Prioritize Whole Foods
Especially high-quality fats and lean protein. Aim for organic fruits and vegetables, pasture-raised poultry, wild-caught fish, and grass-fed meat.
And, as best you can, limit processed foods and artificial sweeteners, and reduce your alcohol intake.
#2 Don’t Fear Fats!
Healthy fats are essential for hormones and will actually be beneficial in weight management. So long as you’re getting the right types (such as the aforementioned omega-3s) from healthy sources like avocado, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish!
#3 Eat the Rainbow
Fill your plate with a wide variety of colors from fruits and veggies to ensure you’re getting an adequate amount of antioxidants and nutrients. And diversify your selection! Try new veggies and fruits — don’t just stick to the same produce throughout the week.
#4 Work With a Medical Professional
A Naturopathic Doctor can look into malabsorption problems, medications that may be depleting nutrients, genetic mutations, and more. With professional help, you can get to the root cause of your issue!
#5 If You’re Plant-Based, Consider Supplements
While it’s advisable to speak with a medical professional, consider supplementing if you’re plant-based or vegan. B vitamins are often a big one for vegans and vegetarians, but getting a standard vitamin and mineral blood panel done can show you where any possible nutrient gaps may be.
#6 Eat Enough Calories & Listen To Your Body
It’s important to eat enough calories to nourish your body and avoid nutrient deficiencies. Extreme diets, fasts, and skipped meals are often a culprit.
And remember to stay mindful and intuitive. “Often our body will tell us when we are deficient in something,” says Heussner. “Craving chocolate or experiencing more headaches? You may be needing more magnesium. Craving meat around your period? You probably need more iron.”
#7 Consider Healthy Swaps
- Swap Coffee for Matcha: If you experience more anxiety or loose stools with coffee, you may want to consider swapping it with matcha. Matcha contains caffeine to boost energy, but it also contains L-theanine, which prevents the jitteriness felt from coffee and reduces the risk of running to the bathroom with loose stools.
- Skip The Sweetener for Cinnamon: Add cinnamon to oats, smoothies, or coffee in place of sugar to balance blood sugar.
- Breakfast Swaps: Swap out carb and sugar-heavy breakfasts for more protein and fats to reduce anxiety and stabilize your mood and energy.
- Swap Sugar for Blood Sugar Balance: Whole foods rich in protein and fat (like fruit with nut butter, olives, cottage cheese, grass-fed beef sticks, and hard-boiled eggs) are great options.
#8 Seed Cycle to Balance Your Hormones
A simple women’s health hack for healthy hormones? Seed cycling. Seed cycling involves incorporating specific seeds into your diet during different phases of your menstrual cycle (particularly the follicular and luteal phases of the menstrual cycle), which can help to balance hormones, reduce symptoms of PMS, and promote overall reproductive health.
“Certain seeds contain fatty acids and micronutrients needed to boost estrogen and progesterone throughout the month,” says Heussner.
Generally speaking, here’s how seed cycling works:
During the follicular phase (days 1-14 of the menstrual cycle), the focus is on supporting estrogen production. This is done by incorporating the following seeds into your diet:
- 1 tablespoon of freshly ground flax seeds
- 1 tablespoon of freshly ground pumpkin seeds
During the luteal phase (days 15-28 of the menstrual cycle), the focus is on supporting progesterone production. This is done by incorporating the following seeds into your diet:
- 1 tablespoon of freshly ground sesame seeds
- 1 tablespoon of freshly ground sunflower seeds
Add them to smoothies, yogurt bowls, salads, and other dishes!
#9 Optimize Gut Health & Digestion
Inadequate intake of nutrients impairs the gut microbiome, which can lead to things like SIBO, leaky gut, constipation, or IBS, says Heussner. “The gut needs certain nutrients like vitamin D and K2 to feed the good bacteria in the microbiome.”
Here are some tips:
- For better gut health, reduce your intake of artificial sweeteners
- Drink warm lemon water first thing in the morning (before your morning coffee!) for healthy bowel movements
- Add in ground flaxseeds daily for better bowel movements (and healthy hormones!)
#10 Give Your Liver Some (Nutrient-Dense) Love
By adding in liver-supporting foods (such as cruciferous vegetables like bok choy, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, dandelion greens, cabbage, and mustard greens), you can support the liver and detox pathways! This is important for filtering toxins and waste products from the body. Plus, by reducing the burden on the liver, a diet that supports detox pathways can help to increase energy and vitality.
If that weren’t enough, many of the foods that support liver detox pathways are also beneficial for digestive health. Think: fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which can help to promote regularity and support a healthy gut microbiome.
Speaking of cruciferous foods, here’s a healthy hormone hack — add broccoli sprouts into your diet for healthy estrogen levels! These small, nutrient-dense sprouts are a rich source of a compound called sulforaphane, which has been shown to support healthy estrogen levels.
As women, we have many nutritional needs, which often go unmet! So, despite the many roles we often take on, it’s essential for women to prioritize their own health and well-being, both for their own benefit and for the benefit of those around them. And it’s as simple as taking care of yourself with proper nutrition, exercise, and stress management,
That said, it’s important to work with a medical professional like a Naturopathic Doctor or Registered Dietitian to assess your nutrient intake and determine if supplementation is necessary. They can provide guidance on food choices and meal planning to ensure you’re meeting your individual nutrient needs!