When it comes to men and women, there are many things that should be equal: rights, pay, share of airplane armrests. But, biologically speaking, women and men are different, particularly when it comes to hormones. While the nutrients men and women require may be the same or nearly the same, the reasons we need them can be different. This is especially true for female athletes, as our hormones are massively influenced by we put into our body and what we put our bodies into – like a 26.2-mile run, for example.
If you’re a woman on the move, here are the top seven nutrients that will keep you going strong.
While bone health is a concern for both women and men, research shows that women tend to have thinner bones, and estrogen, the primary female sex hormone that helps protect bones, decreases as women age. But, when you hear the words “strong bones,” vitamin K2 is probably not the first nutrient that comes to mind. More likely, it’s calcium. But we need vitamin K2 to absorb calcium. Vitamin K2 works to take calcium out of our blood and put it into our bones. K2 in the form of menaquinone-7 (MK-7), is the form of vitamin K that has clinically-proven bone-building properties and lasts the longest in the bloodstream. Unfortunately, this critical nutrient can be hard for some people to get through diet alone. Vitamin K2 as MK-7 is only found in large amounts in natto, a fermented soybean product. Because this nutrient is so important for building strong bones and hard for some people to get consistently from food, we include it in both our SmartyPants Women’s Complete and our Prenatal Complete.
Fiber. It’s good for you. It helps with digestion. Old news, right? Right. Which is why we’re not going to talk about that here. Well, not exactly. Digestion is the process of breaking down food so that you can absorb the nutrients inside. Nutrients are required to make hormones. If your digestion is off, then your nutrient absorption could be too, which could impact hormone balance. As we already know, fiber supports healthy digestion, so it’s important to make fiber an integral part of your daily diet. Excellent sources of insoluble fiber – the kind that keeps you regular – include whole grains, raw fruits and vegetables, seeds, and nuts. Soluble fiber – which helps feed your good gut bacteria – can be found in avocados, squash, starchy tubers (sweet potatoes, potatoes, yams), carrots, turnips, beets, and plantains.
Speaking of the gut and healthy hormones, some research shows that gut bacteria can also influence hormones like estrogen which is partially metabolized in the gut. Unfortunately, the beneficial or “good” bacteria naturally present in our body can be depleted by many modern lifestyle factors including (but not limited to) chronic stress, food additives, too little fiber, and overexposure to anti-bacterial products. You can support your army of good gut bacteria by incorporating probiotics into your diet, either in the form of fermented foods or supplements like our SmartyPants Probiotic Complete gummies.
Most athletes are familiar with the importance of carbs, but in the post-Atkins, Paleo Era, carbs have come under fire. Several prominent members of the health and wellness community have even gone so far as to deem carbs an unnecessary part of the diet. However, much of the existing research on low-carb diets has focused solely on men or people with diagnosed medical conditions. We’re now seeing that restricting carbohydrates may have different long-term outcomes for men and women.
Female hormones are highly sensitive to stress, which includes physical stress such as intense exercise or nutrient deprivation. Both research and anecdotal evidence indicate that going too low carb for too long could potentially impact thyroid function, mood and sleep quality, and digestion. While the short-term benefits of cutting carbs may be appealing, it’s particularly important for females, and especially female athletes, to pay attention to their carb intake. Most experts recommend a bare minimum of 100 grams of carbohydrate per day for all females, with that number rising to 150+ based on activity level. We recommend that you try a nutrition tracker to get an idea of how many carbs you’re eating in a typical day – it could be a lot lower than you think, especially if you’re gluten or grain-free. Excellent sources of carbs for females include bananas, root vegetables, plantains, soaked oats, rice, and quinoa – all pack carbs plus soluble and insoluble fiber.
The B vitamins – B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12 – work together to do some pretty amazing things, including helping us burn fat and glucose for energy, maintain healthy skin and muscle tone, support our metabolism, enhance our immune function, ease stress, and improve mood. Female athletes should pay attention to getting plenty of B vitamins as this group can be easily depleted by alcohol, stress (which includes exercise), caffeine (hello pre-run cold brew!), and certain medications including antibiotics and hormonal birth control. Thankfully, B vitamins are plentiful in the diet. The best sources include dark, leafy green vegetables, eggs, fish, and beef.
OMEGA 3 FATTY ACIDS
Omega 3 fatty acids, which include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), all help promote a healthy inflammatory response.* This is crucial for athletes, as exercise has been shown to cause an acute increase in inflammatory markers. For women, omega 3s have been shown to support hormonal balance, promote healthy menstruation, and support brain function as we age! The best dietary sources of EPA and DHA are wild-caught fish, such as salmon and sardines, and some types of sea algae. You can get ALA from plant sources such as flax and chia seeds.
While weight training isn’t a “nutrient,” per se, it is nutritious in the sense that its effect on the body supports several vital functions, and it’s an important part of any runner’s training program. Studies have shown that strength training will not only enhance running performance, but it can also help prevent injuries, bone loss, and may even help build new bone. If the thought of taking time away from the open road to pump out sets of ten seems painful, good news: you don’t need to spend hours in the gym to reap the benefits of weight training. Research shows that you can get the job done in as little as 30-60 minutes a week.
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Posted on May 1, 2017