Women face many potential health related problems not the least of which are cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, PMS, and bone health issues. While not exhaustive, a handful of key nutrients and natural health products that play a major role in addressing the many issues that affect the health of Canadian women are reviewed below. These include vitamin D, gamma-linolenic acid, probiotics, omega-3 fats, and protein.
Nutrition Support for Women
Remember the childhood taunt: “Sticks and stones may break my bones…?”
While true enough, a diet lacking in certain nutrients could do just as much damage. The Osteoporosis Society of Canada states that some 1.4 million Canadians have osteoporosis. That’s a lot of people with brittle bones. Some of those, about 25,000 every year will fall and suffer hip fractures, which can result in disability, even death.
Vitamin D has long been known as the sunshine vitamin because it is produced on the skin through the action of sunlight. However, because it’s the UVB that is responsible for vitamin D production, anyone living in Canada is unable to produce it at all from about mid-October until mid-April because of insufficient UVB rays during the fall and winter months. Of note, it takes 20 minutes of sun exposure to 40% of your body, at least 4 times per week to produce enough vitamin D [assuming you’re fair skinned. Those with darker complexions need much more time to produce the same amount of vitamin D] – most of us don’t have this kind of time, even during the summer.
A review published in the July, 2006 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition determined that in order to achieve the optimal blood levels of vitamin D, it would be necessary to get at least 2000 international units (IU) of vitamin D per day from all sources to elevate blood levels to 75 – 80 nanomoles per liter in 98% of the population; the minimum level that research has found needed to maximally absorb calcium from the diet.
A blood level of 100 nanomoles or more offers a better advantage for helping to preserve normal bone mineral density by minimizing the activity of a hormone called PTH which, if overactive, increases bone breakdown. A blood level of vitamin D of this level (100 nanomoles) will also help to prevent periodontal disease, cavities, falls, fractures, breast and colorectal cancer and reduce the risk for respiratory infections such as colds, the flu and pneumonia.
They concluded that the most desirable serum levels of vitamin D began at 75 nanomoles per liter, and optimal levels are at least 100 nanomoles per liter. These levels cannot be reached with the current recommended intakes of 200 IU per day for younger adults and 600 IU per day for older adults. The best rule of thumb is to get 2000 to 4000 IU of vitamin D daily from Oct to March and 2000 IU daily during the spring to late summer [assuming there is some sun exposure, if you avoid the sun completely, then take 4000 IU every day year round like I do]. Be sure to check all supplements for any vitamin D content.
Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA)
While omega-6 intake in general is quite high among the general population due to a high consumption of vegetable oils, there is one omega-6 fat that is relatively rare in our food system: gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). In addition to borage oil, spirulina, black currant and evening primrose oil, hemp oil is one of the other few sources of this metabolite of linoleic acid. GLA is quite similar in chemistry to one of the omega-3 fats present in fish called EPA. And like EPA, some studies have shown that GLA may help in reducing heart disease.
It is estimated that 70% of women experience some variation of PMS symptoms. One of the causes of PMS is a hormonal imbalance in which the body produces excessive levels of estrogen and reduced levels of progesterone. Most recently PMS has also been linked to a deficiency in essential fatty acids, specifically the inhibited conversion of GLA from omega-6 fatty acids. GLA is produced in the body by the natural metabolic conversion of linoleic acid (omega-6), which is an essential fatty acid. It has been discovered that in women with PMS, the conversion of dietary omega-6 or linoleic acid to GLA is often compromised. By helping to stabilize hormone levels and reduce inflammation, it is possible that GLA might also ease bloating, cramping, and other PMS discomforts.
As many women have impaired conversion of omega-6 to GLA, it is important to supplement GLA from other sources. Although GLA is rare it can be found in four primary sources. Hemp, borage, evening primrose, and blackcurrant oils all contain GLA in varying amounts. Hempseed oil is particularly useful as a GLA source as it also contains a perfect balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. It is recommended that women suffering from PMS take approximately 500-1000 mg of GLA daily. One tablespoon of hempseed oil, or 3 capsules at 4% GLA provides 500 to 600 mg of GLA.
Probiotics are defined as healthy bacteria that when consumed, in sufficient amounts, confer health benefits to the host, i.e. you. The key to reaping the benefits from probiotics is to consume a product that offers enough bacteria that have been shown to survive digestion and are clinically proven to be beneficial. Probiotics are susceptible to being destroyed by both stomach acid and bile which are secreted as part of normal digestion.
We all have both good and bad bacteria coexisting in our gut. Problems arise when the balance between these two are disrupted [dysbiosis]. This can occur from stress, from eating highly refined foods, by not getting enough fiber, certain medications, antibiotics, poor food handling and from foods that come from other parts of the world with questionable production practices. Imbalances in our gut bacteria can manifest from bloating, gas, irregular stool consistency and habits to full blown food-borne illness. As well, dysbiosis can result in an over growth of candida albicans most commonly in the bowels and vagina. Probiotics have been shown to be beneficial in treating candidiasis and for helping to prevent it in the first place.
It’s also important to know that there are thousands of different strains of probiotics, each with its own unique effect on the body – not all probiotics are created equal. Unfortunately the label doesn’t tell the consumer anything about their function. The best way to get these helpful little guys is to choose a product that is in a fermented milk or soy format, that is fresh with live bacteria cultures, in a high concentration that have studies to back up their benefits, which have also been proven to survive digestion. Other options include authentic fermented kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, or lactic acid fermented vegetables.
Omega-3 fats [specifically EPA & DHA] belong to the group of fats called polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs for short. These include both omega-6s and omega-3s. Omega-6 fat is found primarily in corn, sunflower, safflower, soybean and cottonseed oil. While omega-6s have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol (or ‘bad’, ‘L’ is for ‘lousy’ cholesterol), their wide use in food production has resulted in the over-consumption of them at the expense of omega-3 fats. Why is this important? In a word: inflammation. Omega-6 fats, when over consumed, can lead to low-grade inflammation which promotes heart disease, the leading cause of death of women in Canada.
Omega-3s on the other hand are heart healthy as they lower inflammation, help to prevent irregular heart beats, help to prevent platelet aggregation [i.e. sticky blood cells], promote healthy eye sight, improve mood [a recent study has shown them to be as effective as antidepressant drugs], and research is now flushing out their role in preventing osteoporosis through their anti-inflammatory role. Stress hormones, called cytokines, which are released with inflammation promote calcium and phosphorus loss from bones.
The best sources are cold water fish like wild salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, low-mercury albacore tuna and sardines. Fish oil supplements are also an option and there are several quality brands available that are patented to prevent any fishy aftertaste and virtually free of contaminants.
It has long been thought that the high protein (and reduced cereal grain) diets would increase urinary excretion of the mineral calcium, known to be essential to bone health. A new study in the in the March 2008 issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, looked at 32 men and women over 50 who were randomized to either a high or low protein intake diet for nine weeks and who were also getting on average 800 milligrams of calcium in their diet. Changes in urinary calcium excretion in the two groups did not differ significantly over the course of the study. But those who increased their dietary protein by an average of 58 grams of protein a day had 25 % higher levels of bone growth factor and lower levels of a marker of bone breakdown compared with those who had a lower protein intake.
This is not surprising as bone tissue is made up of protein, collagen [another type of protein] and minerals [calcium, phosphorus & magnesium]. Bone is made of a mineral-based scaffolding-like structure which offers support and form on to which protein is laid down on top. Bone is living tissue which turns over or is replaced constantly. In fact, 7% of bone is remodeled every week. Protein is crucial for this process. Keep in mind that there are a variety of protein sources that can be included every day: lean cuts of fresh meat, chicken, turkey, and fish. As well as nuts, seeds, eggs, low-fat dairy and legumes, and protein powder like whey, rice or hemp.