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If you’ve ever stood in the vitamin aisle feeling dumbfounded by the various nutrients listed in alphabetical order, you’re not alone. There are so many different vitamins and multivitamins (comprised of a mixture of the former) to choose from. Ultimately, however, this makes sense, since a broad variety of nutrients play a role in a woman’s health. Knowing which ones will work specifically for you can be tricky, unless you happen to be a doctor, that is—which is why we decided to tap one to determine the vitamins you really need, including the multivitamins that cover them all.
And since identifying the best possible multivitamin begins with understanding what should really be in one, we asked Dr. Lucky Sekhon, a fertility specialist and board-certified OB/GYN, what women—at all ages and stages—need to look for on the labels. Needless to say, the next time you need to navigate that vitamin aisle, you’ll be prepared.
Related: Should You Take a Dietary Supplement?
For Women of All Ages
No matter what phase of your life you’re in, Dr. Sekhon says that there are certain vitamins that you always need; all are worth adding into your routine. Incorporate them one-by-one or find a multivitamin—she prefers Ritual’s Essential for Women 18+ option ($30 per month, ritual.com)—formulated with the majority of them. First up? Folate, which is also known as the natural form of vitamin B9; it is important for cell growth and cancer prevention, Dr. Sekhon says. Iron is also important, since people who menstruate often see these levels go low. “Also, some individuals may be prone to deficiency due to reduced absorption of iron by the digestive system,” she adds.
Magnesium, another essential, is a multifaceted mineral that plays a role in many aspects of your body’s function. According to Dr. Sekhon, regular diets often do not supply enough. Supplementing the mineral is critical, since a deficiency can lead to muscle cramps, constipation, and heart palpitations, she notes. And while iron helps create a healthy blood supply, selenium supports the thyroid and the brain: “This is important for thyroid function and protecting cells from infection and age-related ailments such as dementia and cancer,” Dr. Sekhon says, urging us all to make room for this one in our daily vitamin line-up.
You likely already know that vitamins B, C, and D are essential, but do you know why? The first plays an important role in normal nervous system function, while the second is “needed for growth and the repairing of all body tissues,” Dr. Sekhon continues, noting that it is also critical for the absorption of iron (everything is connected!) and maintaining the health of bone, cartilage, and teeth. As for the last? For a strong immune system and plenty of energy, vitamin D (which we absorb via the sun) is key, though deficiency is very common, she adds—”especially in individuals who live in locations with seasonal winters and lack of sunlight,” Dr. Sekhon says. “Most people can benefit from taking 1,000 to 2,000 IUs of vitamin D3 per day.” Last but certainly not least? Zinc. “This micronutrient helps to fight infections and inflammation,” she says.
For Pregnant Women
If you are pregnant, the vitamins you take on a daily basis will change, but there are several incredible options on the market, like Honest Prenatal Once Daily Vitamin ($19.95, honest.com) and Olly Essential Prenatal Vitamin ($13.99, target.com), that hit everything you (and your growing baby) need. “The most important components of prenatal vitamins are folic acid and iron,” Dr. Sekhon says, noting that, ideally, folic acid should be a part of your daily vitamin intake for at least three months before conception. “Folic acid reduces the risk of neural tube or spinal birth defects in the early fetus. Iron supplementation is important as iron requirements increase in pregnancy and are critical for the carrying of oxygen in the blood from mom to baby.”
While folic acid and iron are the two most important vitamins for pregnant women, Dr. Sekhon says that vitamin C, calcium, iodine, B vitamins, and small amounts of zinc are also commonplace in many multivitamin formulations. Where vitamin C helps facilitate iron absorption and promote healthy cartilage and bone formation in growing babies, calcium helps ensure that the baby’s bone formation is strong.
For Women in Their 50s and Beyond
Aging doesn’t mean that we need to introduce new vitamins into our routines—but the amounts should shift as the years pass, which is why there are several multivitamins made for women over 50, like One a Day Women’s 50+ Healthy Advantage Vitamin ($10.47, amazon.com). Take calcium, for example. As we age, explains Dr. Sekhon, we begin to lose more calcium than the body absorbs. “This calcium deficit, combined with low estrogen levels in menopause, can leave bones more vulnerable to osteoporosis and fractures,” she says, noting that women over 50 should get 20 percent more calcium than other adults. And because calcium can’t be absorbed into the body without ample vitamin D (“The body is less able to convert sunlight exposure to vitamin D as people age,” she notes), boosting the latter through supplementation is also essential. Magnesium also plays into the bone health equation—and since people over 50 are more prone to chronic health conditions and take multiple medications which might deplete these levels, supplementation is encouraged.
Needs for vitamins B (specifically B12 and B6) change too, notes Dr. Sekhon. “Up to one-third of people over 50 have a condition called atrophic gastritis, where vitamin B12 is less absorbed by the lining of the stomach,” she says, noting that weight loss surgery and chronic use of certain medications, such as antacids, can also lead to vitamin B12 deficiency. To mitigate this, adjust your diet: meat, fish, eggs, and dairy are all sources of B12, though vitamins might be a healthier outlet (if you’re also concerned about cholesterol). As for B6’s role? “The required amount of vitamin B6—which is important for immune system function and brain development—increases as we age,” Dr. Sekhon says. “Some studies have suggested that high vitamin B6 levels are associated with improved memory in seniors.”