In order to stay healthy, there are many things that the body needs. Some, such as water, air and energy from food are needed in large amounts every day, while others can be taken in much smaller quantities. These substances are vitamins and minerals, and are necessary for many of the body’s reactions to occur. Vitamins are also powerful antioxidants, which means that they help to reduce and prevent damage being done to the cells of the body. This has a number of benefits, but two of the best known are a reduced risk of cancer (a large number of cancers can be prevented as a result of antioxidants being present) and also reducing the signs of ageing. There are many vitamins and minerals that play an important role in the maintenance of health, but these are some of the most important.
- Vitamin C. This is an extremely powerful antioxidant, and it is found in a wide range of substances. The majority of fruits and vegetables contain some vitamin C, although the amounts vary and some are much richer sources than others. Oranges are one of the best sources of vitamin C, as are many other citrus fruits. The deficiency disease resulting from a low intake of vitamin C is scurvy, which is now almost unheard of due to the availability of fruit and vegetables. It helps to strengthen the immune system and prevent the onset of infections such as the common cold. Vitamin C is water-soluble, so it is necessary to consume it every day, as it cannot be stored.
- Vitamin D. Vitamin D is one of the substances that is essential for strong bones and teeth. This vitamin is normally synthesised when the body is exposed to sunlight, although it can be obtained from a selection of foods as well. It is particularly important for women to ensure that they get enough vitamin D, because it will help to prevent the loss of bone density that often occurs later in life as a result of the menopause. The dramatic fall in hormone levels that occurs at this time is frequently followed by changes in bone density. However, by ensuring that the right vitamins and minerals are taken in sufficient amounts, these changes can be prevented, or at least reduced in severity.
- Calcium. This is the other substance that is closely involved in the strength and structure of the bones. Although not a vitamin, it is a trace element that must be present in order for the body to function correctly. Calcium is found most commonly in dairy products such as milk and cheese. Your intake of these substances is important to prevent the onset of conditions such as osteoporosis, which is far more common in women than in men, due to the changes in hormone levels that occur throughout your lifetime. By maintaining your intake of calcium, you will be taking steps to avoid problems such as breaks and fractures later in life.
- Iron. Another mineral, or trace element, a woman’s daily intake of iron should be higher than that of a man. Iron is used in the production of red blood cells, as it is an essential part of the protein haemoglobin, which carries oxygen around the body. Women have a higher requirement for iron as a result of the blood being lost in the menstrual cycle, and this must be replaced. Iron can be obtained from a wide variety of foods, but red meats and liver are the richest sources. However, liver should be avoided during pregnancy because it also contains high levels of vitamin A, which is harmful to the baby and can lead to birth defects.
- Folic acid. This nutrient is recommended for women during pregnancy, and also for those who are looking to become pregnant in the near future. Folic acid helps to prevent birth defects, such as spina bifida, because it is involved in the formation of the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord). It may be necessary to take folic acid supplements up to the 12th week of pregnancy, by which time the central nervous system will have developed. In adults, this nutrient is also needed, as a regular intake of it will help to prevent a type of anaemia known as folate deficiency anaemia. While only pregnant women are likely to need supplements of folic acid, it may be necessary to alter your diet slightly to include enough of the nutrient. Vegetables such as Brussels sprouts and broccoli are good sources of folic acid.
- Vitamin A. Women who are pregnant should avoid foods that are very high in vitamin A, because high levels of it in the blood can affect the development of the baby, causing birth defects. However, despite this, vitamin A does play some very important roles in the body. It is needed to make the chemicals in the eye that detect light, so having a higher intake of vitamin A can help to improve vision when the levels of light are low. It is also involved in the proper functioning of the immune system.
It is best if you can obtain the majority of your nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, from the foods that you eat (or being exposed to sunlight, in the case of vitamin D). This will ensure that you are obtaining the right form of each nutrient, as there are often several related chemicals that do not all perform the same functions inside the body. It also means that you are less likely to overdose on any of the nutrients, which can happen if you are taking supplements. You will also be able to obtain a wide range of other substances that will not be included in supplements, but can offer additional benefits for your health.
However, if you think that you may be suffering from a particular deficiency, then you should seek advice from your doctor, as it may be necessary for you to take supplements until the levels have been restored to normal. This is frequently the case with substances such as iron. Dietary changes may also be necessary, but you should not alter anything until you have received medical advice.