Women’s Health: Nutrition + Aging

By: Dr. Deedra Mason

There is a growing spectrum of approaches to feeling comfortable in our bodies.  As both women and men, there is more and more emphasis for us to harness our physical + mental well-being to stay young.  It may be a radical change in lifestyle, adding a spiritual/meditative practice to our daily routine, or becoming more active in our community.  Frankly, all are proven to move the aging body into accepting its changing needs (and sometimes shape).  While the regular practice of a healthy diet, sleep, and exercise, as well as social involvement, are exactly what the doctor ordered, we often ask “do I really know what to do to help MY body with age related concerns? What about mental/emotional complaints is there anything I can do naturally to support my mood and outlook?  Do I need to accept a loss of sexual self just because I am getting older?” Read on to find out what you may be able to do.

There is a wealth of information available to help answer these questions.  Still, the best approach may be to “get back to basics” to “copy nature”.  This is a sound approach to aging because it keeps the main thing the main thing.  Diet, exercise and sleep all reign supreme to support our metabolism.  Something else that supports this trio is optimizing select nutrients through supplementation.  A lifestyle that is balanced with the help of balanced nutrient choices through focused supplementation not only fills in gaps where our diets fall short, but can also help us achieve a better night’s sleep and support our energy or endurance for activity (both mental and physical) throughout the day.   Now this is not to suggest aging is as simple as 1.2.3., rather promoting a mindset that says, “I can definitely make choices to improve my quality of life today that will impact the quality of my health later”.

Hormonal changes are a natural and known entity in the aging process.  What is surprising to many is how early in life we start to see this decline.  A woman’s hormones begin to decline at the age of 35 (1) and plunge dramatically during her peri-menopausal years, while the signs of hormone changes in men, albeit more gradual may start as early as his 40’s. (3)

Between the ages of 35 and 50 estrogen levels reduce by 35 percent, but progesterone levels plummet by as much as 75 percent. This rapid reduction in progesterone versus our estrogen can cause a relative “estrogen dominance”.   While all women will start to see some decline in their progesterone levels before 40 years of age, about 25% of these women will report they suffer with complaints of low progesterone.   Complaints such as sleep continuity issues, increase inches/centimeters around the middle and low libido. In fact, as much as 9% of women below the age of 45 seek help for low sexual desire through hormone replacement therapies.

Some of the most common phases of life where a woman may want added support is during a postnatal period (after delivery) when there are greater demands on her from her family and work life and in peri-menopausal years before the age of 50.  These phases of life may not require hormone replacement, yet would benefit from progesterone support.

Progesterone is a steroid hormone.  This means it is a derivative of cholesterol.  Much like testosterone and vitamin D, progesterone requires a healthy amount of cholesterol production to maintain optimal levels.  There are several factors affecting the levels of this important hormone in our bodies and low levels of progesterone affect many aspects of health besides menstruation and maintaining pregnancy. Low levels of progesterone are associated with mood swings, irritability, anxiety, and fatigue and in some severe cases depression.

With all this being said, women need to take extra care in providing their bodies with the necessary building blocks to maintain healthy progesterone levels within the body.  Many women take a multi-vitamin or a prenatal vitamin, but still may not be getting enough of the vitamins and minerals that are crucial to maintaining healthy hormone levels. While progesterone is not present in any food, research suggests that are certain naturally occurring vitamins and minerals that can help increase progesterone levels by promoting the body’s progesterone production.

For those women, perhaps knowing there is an approach with the use of  select nutrients, botanicals or antioxidants to support quality of life concerns, may go a long way to improving their outlook and compliance.  Nutrients to focus on for optimal female balance include, magnesium, vitamin C, B-vitamins like B-6 and additional antioxidants such as pycnogenol.

Nutrients:

Magnesium

Not only does magnesium allow the body to absorb calcium for healthy bone mineral density, it also helps support the pituitary gland.  The pituitary gland is responsible for the balance between healthy levels of FSH (follicular stimulating) LH (luteinizing) and TSH (thyroid stimulating) hormones.  Magnesium plays a large role in each of the hormones activity in the body supporting healthy metabolism and ovarian health.

How Much Magnesium Do You Need?

Recommended: 320 mg per day, but during pregnancy that increases to 450mg per day.

Foods High in Magnesium:

  • Dark Leafy Greens (Raw Spinach) – 79mg per 100g of Spinach
  • Nuts and Seeds (Squash and Pumpkin Seeds) – 534mg per 100g of Pumpkin Seeds
  • Fish (Mackerel) – 97mg per 100g of Mackerel
  • Whole Grains (Brown Rice) – 44mg per 100g of Brown Rice
  • Dark Chocolate – 327mg per 100g of Dark Chocolate

Vitamin C. 

Vitamin C is a flavonoid functioning as an antioxidant. Antioxidants work like a defense system, disarming free radicals which are unstable molecules that can damage cell structures. Researchers believe that the ovaries take in ascorbic acid right before ovulation, which then facilitates a strong ovulation. In a 2003 study, women who took Vitamin C had a significant increase in progesterone levels compared to those who did not.

How much Vitamin C should you take?

Minimum: 85 mg per day.

Recommended: 500–1500 mg per day.

Foods High in Vitamin C. 

(It is vital that you eat raw and fresh fruits and vegetables that are high in Vitamin C.)

  • Yellow Peppers –3mg per large pepper (Red and Green have less)
  • Dark Green Leafy Vegetables (Kale) – 120mg per 100g of Kale
  • Kiwi – 64mg per Kiwi
  • Broccoli – 89.2mg per 100g of Broccoli
  • Oranges – 69.7mg per Orange

Vitamin B6. 

Another vitamin that has definitely shown to help increase levels of progesterone in the blood naturally is Vitamin B6. Getting enough B-6 is vitally important when trying to support healthy progesterone levels as it helps to regulate hormone balance and gut health.  In fact, the combination of B-6 and magnesium is a common approach to intestinal hyper-permeability. Women are more likely, when compared to men of the same age and stress level to suffer with gut irritability.  It is understood that low levels of progesterone play a role in this gender difference.  Research has also shown that women with high levels of Vitamin B6 have lower incidence of ovarian and fertility complaints.  Vitamins B6 and E encourage the release of progesterone, even in post-menopausal females, into the bloodstream and may potentially raise progesterone levels.  An increase in progesterone has a relaxing effect and reduces some anxiety and nervousness, not uncommon in menstruating and non-menstruating women.  Sufficient B-Vitamin status may also ensure adequate amounts of both Dopamine and Serotonin production- a critical part of managing sexual health.

How Much Vitamin B6 Do You Need?

Minimum: 1.9 mg per day.

Recommended: 10 mg per day. Can increase to 50mg when short term booster is needed.

It is hard to consume high levels of Vitamin B6 from food alone so you may need to take a vitamin supplement. When consuming higher doses of Vitamin B6 you should balance its intake with a comprehensive B-complex.

Foods High in Vitamin B6:

  • Sunflower Seeds –35mg per 100g
  • Pistachio Nuts – 1.12 mg per 100g
  • Fish (Tuna) – 1.04mg per 100g (cooked)
  • Turkey – 0.81mg per 100g (cooked)
  • Dried Fruit (Prunes) – 0.75mg per 100g

Zinc

Zinc acts on multiple organs of the body that are implicated in progesterone production including the pituitary gland and your ovaries. Zinc increases your levels of follicle stimulating hormone by prompting the pituitary gland to release follicle-stimulating hormones, which in turn causes ovulation and stimulates the ovaries to produce estrogen and progesterone.  Zinc initiates key enzymes, playing a pivotal role in vaso-constriction of the key blood vessels arteries in response to stimulation and sexual arousal.   Because tissue stores of both Zinc and Iron can be quite low in females, especially in later years, it is prudent to supplement today to avoid a chronic concerns later.

How Much Zinc Do You Need?

Recommended: 15-25 mg per day, 30 mg for vegetarians.

Limit: 40 mg per day, too high a dose can actually decrease immunity.

Foods High in Zinc:

  • Seafood (Cooked Oysters) – 78.6mg per 100g
  • Lean Beef – 12.3mg per 100g
  • Wheat Germ – 16.7mg per 100g
  • Pumpkin and Squash Seeds – 10.3mg per 100g
  • Nuts (Cashews) – 5.6mg per 100g

Pycnogenol

Pycnogenol is an antioxidant with a clinical benefit in hormonal balance.  Pycnogenol as an antioxidant creates nitric oxide, which widens and relaxes arteries and blood vessels, increasing blood flow in your body. This includes blood flow to the pelvis, the skin, the heart and the brain.  Pycnogenol’s added blood flow supports the ovaries during the course of the female cycle including peri-menopausal/menopausal balance of FSH/LH.  (8). Blood flow assists the hormonal levels of progesterone and supports a healthy balance of estrogen and progesterone. Other benefits of this increased blood flow are the improved production of cervical fluid, improved egg quality and in the case of men increased sperm production.

How Much Pycnogenol Do You Need?

Recommended: Dosage varies widely but you should look to consume 40-60mg per day.

Regardless of your age, physical activity and lifestyle, female health relies on an exquisite interplay between hormones, neurotransmitters, nutrients and psychosocial factors.  Both your internal and external environment will dictate the quality of your cycle, your sleep and even your interpersonal relationships.  The most important step you take will be to choose a daily path that resonates with your personal life choices and goals.

 

Resources:

  1. US Depart of Health and Human Services; National Institute for aging/North American Menopause Society(NAMS)
  2. Michael K Brawer, MD Rev Urol. 2004; 6(Suppl 6): Testosterone Replacement in Men with Andropause: An Overview
  3. Progesterone – The Almost Forgotten Hormone. 2016. Progesterone – The Almost Forgotten Hormone
  4. Effects of ascorbic acid supplementation on serum progesterone levels in patients with a luteal phase defect. – PubMed – NCBI . 2016. Effects of ascorbic acid supplementation on serum progesterone levels in patients with a luteal phase defect.
  5. Nutritional factors in the etiology of the premenstrual tension syndromes. – PubMed – NCBI . 2016. Nutritional factors in the etiology of the premenstrual tension syndromes.
  6. Ronnenberg, AG, Venners, SA, Xu, X, Chen, C, Wang, L, Guang, W, Huang, A & Wang, X 2007, “Preconception B-Vitamin and Homocysteine Status, Conception, and Early Pregnancy Loss,” American Journal of Epidemiology, vol. 166, no. 3, pp. 304–312.
  7. Gaytan, F 1999, “A Quantitative Study of Changes in the Human Corpus Luteum Microvasculature during the Menstrual Cycle,” Biology of Reproduction, vol. 60, no. 4, pp. 914–919.
  8. Luteal blood flow and luteal function | Journal of Ovarian Research | Full Text. 2016. Luteal blood flow and luteal function | Journal of Ovarian Research