Most of us have heard the advice from the media that we should be able to get everything that we need from our food, with one TV presenter recently exclaiming that “all vitamin pills did was give me expensive wee!”
But are people getting all that they need from their diets? For a number of reasons, the answer is probably not! The UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey reported that over a third of the population are not achieving the 5-a-day fruit and vegetable target, and now one study(1) reports that 10-a-day would be better for public health. Do you think your daily diet covers that? If you want to be really confident that you are getting the nutrients you need, that’s when supplementing comes in.
Dietary supplements are concentrated sources of nutrients. You don't need to be a research scientist to know the connection between poor nutrition and disease: from sailors with scurvy to children with rickets, the connection has been made for centuries.
But is it just vitamins that we may need to be supplementing? These days, people may also need to supplement minerals, essential fatty acids and phytonutrients.
Due to over-farming and the extensive use of pesticides, the soil in which our food is grown has become depleted in minerals. Fruit and vegetables in the 1980’s had on average 20% less minerals than they did in the 1930’s, with some losses as high as 70%.
Nutrient depletion of our foods occurs further due to food storage and food processing, and at the same time our nutrient requirements may be increasing as we are exposed to air and water pollutants, and other environmental toxins, which the body has to detoxify. This increased requirement is further compounded by Western diets high in refined foods, sugar, coffee and alcohol and a stressful lifestyle. All these factors combined increase the need for vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients.
Getting all of your nutrients from food is the ideal, and nobody should think that supplements are an alternative to a nutrient dense diet. But in today’s world, studies(2) suggest that this is rarely enough anymore, and high-quality supplementation is beneficial to most to help achieve optimal health and longevity.
Start off by using a good quality multi-vitamin and mineral as a base and adding other supplements when necessary. Think of it as your capsule wardrobe – the everyday essentials – then build on it to suit what’s going on in your life right now. If you only make one nutritional change after reading this article, I’d say:
Once you’ve got the foundations right, it’s time to think about personalising your regime. There are many EU-approved herbal remedies that have been found to help individual symptoms. For example, sage is approved to help with hot flushes. I’d suggest focusing on one or two of your most troublesome symptoms by adding a specific herb, giving it 12 weeks to see if it makes a difference.
These herbs and medicinal plants that don’t tend to crop up in our everyday diets, so you will need to consciously add them to your routine if you are interested in seeing if they work for you.
Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa or Cimicifuga racemosa) is a flower belonging to the buttercup family. It is a traditional herbal medicinal plant used for the relief of symptoms of the menopause such as hot flushes, night sweats and temporary changes in mood. Based on traditional use only.
The plant is native to North America, where it is also known as snakeroot, black bugbane, rattleweed, macrotys, and rheumatism weed.
Native Americans have used Black Cohosh for many years to help with menopausal symptoms. European settlers then adopted black cohosh as a tonic to support women’s health. There’s also scientific evidence to support its use.
A potent source phytoestrogens. There’s a lot to be said for introducing phytoestrogens – plant-based sources of oestrogen – into your diet. Nutritional therapist Rosie Letts explains this well in her article on Nutrition for Menopause here.
Wild yam is a root vegetable commonly used in Asian cooking – where it’s known for its female-friendly health benefits.
Some women find benefits from using Wild Yam in a cream as well as a supplement.
Salvia officinalis (Sage herb) is a popular culinary herb that offers a brilliant extra benefit if you find hot flushes a problem. There’s more further down this article about sage.
Grows worldwide, originally a native of the Mediteraenean region.
One of the traditional uses of sage herb was to ‘ward off evil’ – but today, the main use of sage herb extracts is in food, and supporting women at menopause.
Agnus Castus is a traditional herb used to help relieve symptoms associated with premenstrual syndrome. Many women report benefits from taking this herbal supplement.
Also Monk’s Pepper, Vitex and Chasteberry, it’s a large shrub native to the Mediterranean. Small, scented white and lilac flowers develop into reddish-brown-to-black fruits – about the size of peppercorns – which have been used for centuries to relieve symptoms associated with PMS.
This powerful plant is your friend during perimenopause, when your hormones are all over and you feel less-than-great. There’s good evidence to back up its efficiency - see references at the end of this artcile.
Devil’s Claw is a traditional herbal remedy used for the relief of backache, rheumatic or muscular pain and general aches and pains in the muscles and joints.
Devil’s Claw is a herb that grows in the South African Kalahari Desert and includes the active compound harpagosid.
It’s also known as Grapple Plant, Wood Spider, Hook Plant. It has been used medicinally for thousands of years by the San and Khoi people of the Kalahari Desert.
Ginseng is a type of slow-growing perennial plant and has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. It contains two significant compounds known as ginsenosides and gintonin which are thought to give Ginseng its health benefits.
Ginseng is mainly found in North America and in the Northern Hemisphere of eastern Asia.
Ginseng is often recommended to help improve blood circulation. This makes it particularly beneficial for our brain function as well as helping with our concentration levels (see references at the end of this article).
Ashwagandha is one of Ayurveda’s most prized ‘adaptogenic’ herbs – it’s said to help the body and mind manage times of change. It is also known as ‘rasayana’, meaning rejuvenate in Sanskrit.
India, where it’s known as “the plant that brings you the essence of the horse”.
It has been used for centuries to moderate the body’s response to stress, bringing both energy and inner calm. By nourishing a worried mind and relaxing the nervous system, it helps you feel rebalanced.
Famous fans: This ancient remedy is favoured by Victoria Beckham and Megan Markle
Rhodiola Rosea – or Rhodiola – is also known as Golden Root and Arctic Root. It is a traditional remedy that is used for the temporary relief of symptoms associated with stress, such as fatigue, exhaustion and mild anxiety.
This powerful plant found in arctic and mountainous areas of Asia and Europe – and has been used as a medicinal plant in Iceland, Sweden, France, Russia, and Greece and many more for centuries.
It is mentioned by the Greek physician Dioscorides as early as the first century AD, but he’s not the only one. Evidence references at the end of this article.
Some menopause symptoms respond particularly well to supplements. So let’s take a closer look at popular supplements and herbs that are often used for specific menopause symptoms.
Hot flushes are one of the most common symptoms; 79% of women experience them according to the British Menopause Society. Why they happen isn’t completely understood, but it’s theorised that they’re connected to the decline in oestrogen affecting the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that deals with temperature control.
Most women experience hot flushes as a feeling of intense heat that starts at the chest and rises up through the face, though they can also spread throughout the body. Your skin may flush, and you may break into a sweat, especially during the night – the dreaded night sweats.
One of the most beneficial supplements for hot flushes is sage. Sage is widely used by herbal practitioners to treat hot flushes, and there is evidence it may be effective not just for hot flushes but also for other associated menopausal symptoms such as night sweats.
How to take it
The easiest way is in tablets or capsules so you’re in control of what you consume. Start off with the lowest dosage on your supplement packaging, and see how you go. You can always then increase the dosage if necessary. Some people notice a difference almost immediately but for others, it can take time to work. Allow 8-12 weeks for a supplement to work and to see if you find it helpful.
Top tip: it’s worth taking sage alongside a menopausal complex for added benefits. Sage is dealing with the specific symptom of reducing hot flushes but by taking a menopausal complex as well, you can help balance your hormones to help prevent the hot sweats from occurring at all. Taking the two together seems to be the best approach for helping women who suffer from this.
Oestrogen has a protective effect on bones, so the less oestrogen you have, the more likely you are to suffer with weak bones. Changes in your body’s chemistry also affects the synovial (lubricating) fluid in joints, leading to stiffness, aches and sore joints for some women.
It’s a good idea for all women to consider finding a good bone formulation, especially if you are concerned about osteoporosis after the menopause. Here are some ways in which you can protect bone health through nutrition.
Many different nutrients are involved in making sure our joints and bones are healthy. If you want to be sure you are getting all the right nutrients to help support your joints and bones, consider taking a supplement that has been designed specifically for this. By doing this, you will know that you are getting all the right nutrients and don't have to worry about taking so many different supplements.
Did you know? It’s also really important to keep up your exercise to protect your bones (ideally at least 30 minutes+ a day). Find out more on that in Jane Dowling from Meno & Me’s article on Exercise and Menopause here.
Changes in the hormones, lifestyle and body at this time of your life can lead to low mood, mood swings, stress and feelings of irritability, sadness, anxiety. Sudden anger, difficulty concentrating, tiredness and fatigue can become challenging too. Herbs and plants have traditionally been used for these symptoms for many years, so you might find them helpful. Remember that certain nutrients can be beneficial too.
Different herbs and nutrients work differently for different people, so it may be a matter of trial and error to find out what works specifically for you. We’re all individuals and what works for you may not work for someone else and vice versa. Just make sure that you give your supplements a good time to take effect. Some people notice the difference almost immediately and for others it can take a while to start feeling the benefits, so allow up to 12 weeks.
There are also lots of practical ways to reduce the impact of psychological symptoms include exercise, healthy eating, practices like yoga, and nurturing yourself and your connections. However, it’s really important to talk to your GP if you think you might be struggling with depression or serious anxiety, as these symptoms can be really challenging.
Sleep disturbances are often experienced by those going through the menopause, addressing night sweats (as above) can help. If you still find that you are having trouble sleeping, you could try valerian root which is an herb that is traditionally used to help with sleep. Recent studies suggest it may indeed help tackle insomnia as well as help you to fall asleep faster. There is also some evidence that Valerian may help you to feel calm when faced with stress.
Low magnesium levels are common in menopausal women. Magnesium is known as natures relaxant and can help with sleep. As well as taking magnesium in supplement form, some people find taking a magnesium bath beneficial.
Found in tea leaves, L-theanine may reduce 'mental chatter' at bedtime, support the relaxation response and improve sleep quality.
Lemon Balm prevents the body from converting GABA, a calming brain chemical, into a more excitory brain chemical, so you’ll feel calmer for longer. In three small studies, between 300-1000mg of lemon balm extract reduced anxiety, insomnia and stress. A good way to try and include it in your bedtime routine is with a herbal tea.
Essential oils and teas are helpful to use just before bed to get us into sleep mode.
It is always best to follow the instructions on the package of your supplement, but broadly speaking, you should:
As a general rule, supplements are best taken in the morning. This helps you get the benefits from the nutrients throughout the day. However, always read the info on the pack, as there are exceptions, for example, supplements to support better sleep.
Supplements are usually best taken with food to help your body effectively absorb the nutrients within the supplement. You can be confident that you will be getting a good absorption rate because you are buying good quality supplements like the ones on Health & Her, but taking it with food just gives you that little bit of extra help!
Caffeine stops absorption of vitamins and minerals due to its composition. There’s also an impact of taking a herb with hot water – this can often can break down its potency.
Remember that you may notice a difference quite soon after taking a supplement with some products. Other supplements can take longer to take effect. It all depends on each nutrient and the fact that we are all individuals!
Good to know: if you are severely depleted in one nutrient for example, it may take longer for you to reach optimal levels than someone who is only slightly deficient – you’re replacing lost reserves. In any event, it is good to take a supplement for at least 12 weeks to give them the best chance of being effective. Most supplements are designed to be taken long term, but again, check the packaging of your supplement for directions.
It is always a good idea to let your GP or healthcare provider know what supplements you are taking. It’s important to remember that they haven’t had formal training on supplements, and don’t profess to be 100% expert in all things nutrition.
The world of supplements can be complicated and overwhelming. Some are incredibly cheap, and some are more expensive... so is there a difference? The answer is yes. As with most things in life, you tend to get what you pay for. So Shona Wilkinson – Health & Her’s supplements expert – explains all and answers your top supplement FAQs.
The difference is usually to do with the form of each nutrient in the product. Some forms of nutrients aren’t very well absorbed by our bodies – these tend to be cheaper forms. For example, did you know that magnesium can come in about seven different forms! However, some forms are absorbed well, and these tend to be more expensive.
The team at Health & Her believe that you shouldn’t need an MA in chemistry or nutrition to access the best options, and have done the research for you. You can be assured that every product they sell has been checked by a qualified professional to ensure they are nothing but the best.
If you like to get to grips with the facts yourself, my must-knows for choosing supplements are:
Read on to learn more about why these things matter – or skip down to find out which supplements help most with different menopause symptoms.
When making recommendations about supplements, try to look for supplements that are easiest to absorb. Think of eating a simple boiled potato vs curly fries. The natural version offers up nutrients cleanly, but the fried, frozen and seasoned option isn't as good for us – the same applies in the world of supplements.
When we talk about ‘food state’ in terms of supplements, this means products are made from derivatives of ‘real food’. For example, all the vitamin C in Wild Nutrition products is from orange pulp.
The easiest way to explain this is to think about the free bread you might pick up at a buffet – it fills you up, but doesn’t have great nutritional value as the lean chicken or the superfood salad. Many cheaper supplements use things like talc (like talcum powder) or titanium dioxide to fill up their capsules so they seem more full of goodness.
RDA = Recommended Daily Allowance. NRV = Nutrient Reference Value. They are the same thing. The RDA or NRV is the amount of the vitamin or mineral that the healthy average person needs to stop them becoming severely deficient and developing a health condition.
However, this figure doesn’t even take into account the persons age or sex – the RDA for Vitamin D is the amount to prevent you from getting rickets, but might not be the amount you, individually, might need to be healthy.
Why? Different ages and sexes of course have different nutrient needs. What’s more, the RDA doesn’t take into account the fact that nutrient needs depend on other nutrients, or your environment.
For example, vitamin D helps you absorb calcium – so if you are vitamin D deficient you may not be absorbing calcium well which can in turn lead to a calcium deficiency. Nutrient needs also depend on your environment. For example, if you live in a climate without much sun, your vitamin D needs are greater or if you are a smoker, you may need a greater intake of vitamin C.
So, don’t be worried if you see an amount that is over the RDA/NRV – this is totally normal. As long as you follow the recommendations that come with products, they should be safe.
I always advise taking the dosage recommended on each individual product unless advised otherwise by a healthcare provider.
Shona Wilkinson is a Registered Nutritionist and Supplement Expert who advises nutritional brands and retailers on the health industry market and product development. Shona specialises in supplements and supplement protocols. She is a health writer for magazines and newspapers, appears in various journals, and writes courses and training manuals for retailers and supplement brands.
Mexican Wild Yam -
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