For women, iron could be the key to boosting brain function.
That’s the conclusion of a study published in Nutritional Neuroscience that examined a group of female college students. The students performed a series of cognitive tests that progressively increased in difficulty. Those who were deficient in iron struggled to keep up.
That makes perfect sense; iron ensures the brain has enough oxygen and energy to perform complex tasks. Yet more than one in 10 U.S. women lack the iron they need. By contrast, just one in 50 men lack this vital mineral.
This isn’t the only area of nutrition where women lag far behind their male counterparts. Nearly four in 10 women fail to provide their bodies with all the vitamins and nutrients they need.
A daily multivitamin can help women fill those nutritional gaps. Many women can simply add these supplements to their grocery lists. But millions of poor women struggle to do so. Fortunately, there’s an easy way for policymakers to help expand access to needed vitamins.
Left unaddressed, nutritional deficiencies can lead to severe health problems.
• Iron deficiency can cause weakness, fatigue, headaches and shortness of breath – and impede thinking. It can also increase the risk of developing pancreatic, liver and kidney cancer.
• Vitamin D helps prevent osteoporosis – a condition in which the bones become weak and break easily. This condition disproportionately effects women as they age. In fact, half of all women will experience a fracture from a fall at standing height or less in their lifetime. Vitamin D deficiency is largely responsible; nearly four in 10 women are short on this nutrient.
• Nutritional deficiencies can particularly harm pregnant or breast-feeding women and their babies, as more nutrients are needed to support healthy fetal and post-natal growth. Alarmingly, nationwide, half of these women lack the vitamins they need.
Consider the importance of vitamin A. During pregnancy, the body saps maternal tissue of this vitamin to support fetal growth. So, pregnant women can suddenly find themselves falling short of a critical nutrient that protects vision and the immune system. Many women – particularly poor women – lack this nutrient. This deficiency can also hurt the fetus. One study of pregnant women found that those short on vitamin A were less likely to carry their babies to term.
Folic acid, or vitamin B9, offers another example. This nutrient plays a critical role in supporting the development of a baby’s brain and spinal cord. Shortages can result in serious birth defects, including paralysis, and even death. Yet nearly three in four women of reproductive age don’t get the government recommended 400 to 800 micrograms of folic acid every day.
Iron deficiency during pregnancy can lead to premature birth and low birth weight babies. Nearly two in 10 pregnant women are deficient in iron.
Eating better can help people dodge these risks, of course. But millions of poor women struggle to access healthy food. Fast food is easier and cheaper. At a grocery store, $5 hardly covers the bill for organic blackberries and baby carrots. Yet at a fast-food joint it can get you fries, a double cheeseburger, and a chocolate sundae.
For many women, buying cheap food is the only financially feasible option. One in eight women lives in poverty, compared to one in 10 men. Women are also more likely to live in extreme poverty.
That’s why multivitamins can be so important. One review of over 10,000 women concluded those who took iron supplements were less likely to be anemic than those who did not. Another review by the National Osteoporosis Foundation found calcium plus vitamin D supplementation reduced the risk of all fractures by 15 percent – and hip fractures by 30 percent.
For low-income women who would struggle to add multivitamins to their shopping lists, policymakers could easily help by expanding the list of what’s covered by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Doing so would come at very little cost to the government. And since a multivitamin only costs about a dime a day, this change wouldn’t cut into low-income women’s other SNAP benefits. But it could go a long way to improving health.
Millions of women aren’t getting the vitamins they need. For those that can’t always eat perfectly, multivitamins offer a solution.
Dr. Tieraona Low Dog is an internationally recognized expert in the fields of integrative medicine, dietary supplements and women’s health.
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