- While most supplements can be considered gender neutral, acting on body systems that are similar between men and women, some are more specific to one of the other.
- The differences between men and women extend beyond sexuality and can manifest in either hormonal or neurological differences.
- Vitex agnus castus (Chasteberry) should be considered a vital supplement for many pre-menopausal women.
The more you think about it, the weirder it gets.
Obviously we have reproductive differences but, beyond that, do women and men really vary that much?
Especially when it comes to science. We use rats to estimate how stuff affects us for crying out loud. We share about 50% of the same genes as fruit flies and some have argued that our societal structures are similar to that of lobsters.
When it comes to comparing one human against the other then 99.9% similarity may be an understatement because we don’t want to use more decimal places.
And yet, despite this, we find numerous claims that supplements can benefit women and men differently beyond sex-based anatomical differences.
To rub salt in the wound they are also all called vitamins for what I can only assume to be marketing or negligence. The amount of times I’ve seen calcium included in lists of vitamins for women’s health is equal parts staggering and saddening (we’ll get to why that’s wrong in a moment).
Screw “vitamin,” the most commonly misused term by far in this regard. Want to know vitamins for women? Folic acid prenatal vitamins, boom, done, that’s it.
It’s a useless question.
A much better one is this: “What supplements should I, as a woman, consider that men do not need to consider?”
And simple questions beget simple answers.
- Why Are There Supplements for Just Women?
- The Best 5 Supplements for Women
- Other Commonly Recommended Supplements
- The Bottom Line on Supplements for Women
Table of Contents
Would you rather listen to this article? Click the play button below!
Want to listen to more stuff like this? Check out my podcast!
When it comes to discussing the differences in supplementation requirements for men and women it may be best to simply focus on these three categories:
- Supplements that are or aren’t used due to differences in sex organs
- Supplements that are or aren’t used due to social differences in preferences
- Weird other differences that’ve been observed in studies
The majority of dietary supplements can be considered unisex.
They affect men and women the same. Sex, race, and even species don’t matter to these supplements since they have a directed purpose and the “thing” that it targets is present in most, if not all, animal cells.
It’s why we use animal testing after all, they have highly similar cells to us.
Of course, if you don’t have the same organs, though, then things change. Good luck getting the benefits of a supplement that targets ovary cells if you’re a man, or a supplement that targets penis cells if you’re a woman.
Some supplements increase testosterone secondary to the testiciles (i.e. through them) so they won’t work if you don’t have testicles.
Similarly, if a supplement encourages the ovaries to release certain hormones then you and your hairy coin purse don’t need to worry about it too much.
So the first major difference is simply that. Some supplement affect men and women differently because men and women are packaged differently. And, since some supplements target the package without really caring about the host, they don’t all work for both sexes.
The differences can go beyond the physical, however, as there are sex-based differences in how even our neurons are wired. I’m sure there can be numerous dissertations written on this topic but I’d like to keep this practical.
Sometimes in a mixed sex study we find that men and women respond differently and we have no clue why, but it happened so yay? Sort of like how ketamine’s antidepressant effect in rats requires the scent of a man (a human one, ironically), not a women; weird stuff.
In other words, sometimes men and women respond differently to the same supplement for no apparent reason.
But, if there’s an observable difference let’s at least report it.
The last difference is simply a marketing one. Women buy more topical creams and men buy more muscle builders. These supplements work equally well for both sexes but after a certain point they just get branded as male or female supplements.
But, of course, like most types of supplements there will be useful stuff intermingled with the useless stuff. The purpose of this article is to direct you to the goodies and away from the needless money wasters.
After scouring through not only scientific databases but more mommy blogs than I would have ever thought existed I feel confident that the following are the 5 supplements to consider for their benefits before all others.
Best Supplement for Women #1
Well, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Iron. Consider it.
Iron supplementation is notoriously seen as a female supplement (to the point where men almost never consider supplementing with it despite it being an essential mineral) due to iron losses in the menstrual cycle.
So, it’s equally important for men and women, but due to menstruation, women are at a higher risk of iron deficiency.
It’s surprisingly easy to be deficient in iron, and quite difficult (or otherwise costly) to replenish iron losses with a meat based diet, so supplementation fills the niche here.
Nothing major or surprising but, at the end of the day, different topics have different “basic requirements”. You should take creatine before taking fancier muscle builders, should do some basic compound lifts before fancier routines, and before you branch off into fancier women’s health supplements at least check your iron first.
Check your dietary iron intake, perhaps get a blood panel to check your iron levels, and supplement accordingly per your doctors recommendations. It’s common and simple but it works damn well.
Best Supplement for Women #2
Vitex Agnus Castus
Now onto the more interesting, Vitex agnus castus.
Vitex agnus castus, otherwise known as chasteberry but henceforth simply VAC, is a dietary supplement that was initially used by monks to kill their libidos.
Since then, there’ve been numerous studies showing that it can drastically reduce all symptoms of pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS).
All improved (and to note, some of the previous studies have been repeated through multiple claims).
As a general claim, supplementation of VAC for at least three months spanning three cycles tends to see up to a halving (42 to 52%) of all symptom intensity; at times reducing the duration of PMS by up to 20%.
Vitex agnus castus seems to be the best known supplement, at this point in time, for the treatment of PMS symptoms. The degree it helps seem to be similar to the severity of the symptoms themselves.
Best Supplement for Women #3
Myo-inositol is the most common supplemental form of “inositol,” which is a sugar-like molecule involved in maintaining cell integrity in our bodies.
It isn’t really a vitamin but, similar to a vitamin, some intake is required and it always exists in our bodies. A pseudovitamin of sorts but usually we can synthesize enough to not need to eat it.
There are a few forms of inositol, but they’re generally used to help reduce blood glucose levels.
It, however, does not shine in type II diabetics or those with metabolic syndrome like many other glucose reducing agents do.
Oh no, inositol shines when it comes to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS); an ovarian condition characterized by high androgen and glucose levels (and at times, facial hair).
It should be noted that the high androgen levels seems to occur, in large part, due to the high glucose which is why Metformin is sometimes used to treat PCOS. Metformin is a powerful glucose-lowering drug that’s generally used to treat type ll diabetes.
It’s also why inositol, at doses up to 4 grams once a day, has over a dozen different studies showing reductions in the symptoms of PCOS.
This not only includes improvements in fertility that PCOS otherwise impairs but reductions in elevated glucose, improvements in insulin sensitivity, reductions in androgens, and reductions in both acne and hair growth (hirsutism) that occur in PCOS (well, sometimes).
And the potency of 4 grams myo-inositol is comparable to Metformin itself (or maybe a bit weaker). That’s absolutely nothing to sneeze at, as Metformin is among the best of the best for pharmaceuticals for reducing blood glucose!
If you suffer from polycystic ovarian syndrome, or think you may be somewhat leaning towards PCOS (elevated blood glucose and androgen status) then consider using inositol supplementation.
Best Supplement for Women #4
Maca refers to the plant Lepidium meyenii and is, surprisingly, in the same plant family as broccoli and cauliflower (Brassicaceae). Its benefits are unique though, as is its purpose as a dietary supplement.
Its currently the only dietary supplement used for the purpose of improving sexual health and well-being that has been repeatedly tested in women.
By repeatedly I mean there are two studies showing benefits to women, compared to three conducted in men. While it’s not a herb that only benefits women the field of “libido enhancing” supplements is almost always male so this is a nice change.
In these studies it simply shows that Maca reliably increases feelings of sexual desire and self-reports of sexual performance (ie. how much somebody enjoyed themselves). It does this without influencing androgen or estrogen hormones in both men and women.
This makes Maca a demonstrably proven libido enhancer and sexual health supplement, and one of the few with evidence to show benefits in women (which is one of the reasons we included it in Genesis).
Best Supplement for Women #5
Calcium is commonly recommended as a women’s health supplement specifically for its interactions with osteoporosis/osteopenia. During the aging process women may need more calcium than men due to increased risk of bone degradation.
There is good reason for increasing calcium intake, at least based on the evidence we have right now, but the outright need (how important it is) is a bit up in the air in the moment due to recent improvements in how we understand vitamin D; and may be influenced by our newer understandings on the importance of vitamin K.
The reason it’s commonly seen as a women’s health supplement, however, is that it isn’t something you start when osteopenia starts—you should have started earlier.
Calcium supplementation has a role as a preventative supplement for osteoporosis in both men and women, but it’s more important for women due to higher risk.
Dietary calcium intake is sufficient but, if you can’t modify your diet, calcium (and vitamin D) supplementation should be considered.
Naturally, the above five are not the only supplements recommended to women.
When doing cursory searches for “women’s health supplements” and related terms we can find dozens of different answers of questionable relevance.
Since we covered the five that have beneficial roles, why not cover another five that are either recommended beyond their needs or simply make no sense?
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are vital to health, either from food or supplements (and either from plant-based ALA or fish-based EPA/DHA), and hold a special role for pregnant women.
The consumption of fish, relative to not consuming fish, in minor amounts during pregnancy is one of the few supplements in existence with links to actual measurable improvements in the offspring (well, sometimes).
It could be due to in utero effects, or it may be related to prenatal DHA influencing DHA concentrations in breast milk during feeding, but generally speaking consuming a bit under a pound of seafood a week (340 grams according to the ALSPAC study) seems to be beneficial.
Beyond that though?
The actions of fish oil that extend beyond pregnancy-related issues (child-bearing, lactation, and postpartum depression) is quite similar between men and women, or at the very least there is no evidence to suggest women need more than men if pregnancy isn’t a concern.
Fish oil, and fish intake, is a wonderful prenatal nutrient but should be seen as “women specific” only to the extent that pregnancy is a concern. There’s no need for women who are not about to have children to eat more than men, both sexes simply need to assess their own diets and act accordingly, and similarly.
Folic acid is known as a women’s health supplement due to its role as a prenatal vitamin.
It has a very important role here but, honestly, aside from folic acid being a necessary factor in preventing neural tube defects and its necessity before and during pregnancy there isn’t much else that is “feminine” about this supplement.
This also extends to B-vitamin complexes that are marketed towards women, as these complexes tend to be marketed on the back of folic acid exclusively (and perhaps B12 since veganism may be more common in women relative to men).
Ultimately, folic acid is more a prenatal supplement than it is a women’s health supplement. Beyond the issue of pregnancy folic acid does not differentiate too much in its actions between women and men.
Magnesium supplementation is where we start to get side-tracked. While calcium and omega-3 fatty acids could, reasonably, be claimed as women’s health supplements magnesium just… why?
Magnesium is an important mineral. While there isn’t much in the way of deficiency epidemic going on there are quite a few people taking “suboptimal” levels. Magnesium is in most things but, while a “good” source of vitamin C can contain well over 100% the RDA, a “great” source of magnesium is about 15% per serving.
So many of us can benefit from having magnesium supplementation.
The only issue is, there are no differences in the requirements between men and women for magnesium. There is no sex-based condition that magnesium supplementation is heavily implicated in, there is no reason for the female bias when it comes to magnesium.
Yeah, it’s good, but it’s good for everybody.
Magnesium supplementation has no known reason to be called a women’s health supplement. It’s just a general health supplement and, if you don’t consume enough of it, consider modifying your diet or otherwise supplementing.
So, in a nutshell, here’s are the 5 supplements that should at the top of your wishlist as a woman:
Iron and calcium, depending on your diet.
Vitex agnus castus if you want relief from intense PMS symptoms.
Myo-inositol if you have, or have symptoms related to, PCOS.
Add in some maca for sexual well being and, boom, we have our rounds covered.
Women’s health supplements are one of the most well-sold genres of supplements out there and, from what I can see, it’s not really due to any biological reason but more because our mothers are seen as easy prey by many companies.
Don’t let that happen, stick to the science and supplement cautiously so we can avoid becoming cash cows for unscrupulous companies.
What’s your take on the best supplements for women? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Viswanathan, M., Treiman, K. A., Kish-Doto, J., Middleton, J. C., Coker-Schwimmer, E. J. L., & Nicholson, W. K. (2017). Folic acid supplementation for the prevention of neural tube defects an updated evidence report and systematic review for the US preventive services task force. In JAMA - Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol. 317, Issue 2, pp. 190–203). American Medical Association. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2016.19193
- Imhoff-Kunsch, B., Stein, A. D., Villalpando, S., Martorell, R., & Ramakrishnan, U. (2011). Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation from mid-pregnancy to parturition influenced breast milk fatty acid concentrations at 1 month postpartum in mexican women. Journal of Nutrition, 141(2), 321–326. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.110.126870
- Ramakrishnan, U., Stinger, A., Digirolamo, A. M., Martorell, R., Neufeld, L. M., Rivera, J. A., Schnaas, L., Stein, A. D., & Wang, M. (2015). Prenatal docosahexaenoic acid supplementation and offspring development at 18 months: Randomized controlled trial. PLoS ONE, 10(8). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0120065
- Hibbeln, J. R., Davis, J. M., Steer, C., Emmett, P., Rogers, I., Williams, C., & Golding, J. (2007). Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC study): an observational cohort study. Lancet, 369(9561), 578–585. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(07)60277-3
- Ramakrishnan, U., Gonzalez-Casanova, I., Schnaas, L., DiGirolamo, A., Quezada, A. D., Pallo, B. C., Hao, W., Neufeld, L. M., Rivera, J. A., Stein, A. D., & Martorell, R. (2016). Prenatal supplementation with DHA improves attention at 5 y of age: A randomized controlled trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 104(4), 1075–1082. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.114.101071
- Calcium, I. of M. (US) C. to R. D. R. I. for V. D. and, Ross, A. C., Taylor, C. L., Yaktine, A. L., & Valle, H. B. Del. (2011). Overview of Calcium. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK56060/
- Gonzales, G. F., Córdova, A., Vega, K., Chung, A., Villena, A., Góñez, C., & Castillo, S. (2002). Effect of Lepidium meyenii (MACA) on sexual desire and its absent relationship with serum testosterone levels in adult healthy men. Andrologia, 34(6), 367–372. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1439-0272.2002.00519.x
- Stone, M., Ibarra, A., Roller, M., Zangara, A., & Stevenson, E. (2009). A pilot investigation into the effect of maca supplementation on physical activity and sexual desire in sportsmen. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 126(3), 574–576. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2009.09.012
- Zenico, T., Cicero, A. F. G., Valmorri, L., Mercuriali, M., & Bercovich, E. (2009). Subjective effects of Lepidium meyenii (Maca) extract on well-being and sexual performances in patients with mild erectile dysfunction: A randomised, double-blind clinical trial. Andrologia, 41(2), 95–99. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1439-0272.2008.00892.x
- Dording, C. M., Fisher, L., Papakostas, G., Farabaugh, A., Sonawalla, S., Fava, M., & Mischoulon, D. (2008). A double-blind, randomized, pilot dose-finding study of maca root (L. Meyenii) for the management of SSRI-induced sexual dysfunction. CNS Neuroscience and Therapeutics, 14(3), 182–191. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1755-5949.2008.00052.x
- Brooks, N. A., Wilcox, G., Walker, K. Z., Ashton, J. F., Cox, M. B., & Stojanovska, L. (2008). Beneficial effects of Lepidium meyenii (Maca) on psychological symptoms and measures of sexual dysfunction in postmenopausal women are not related to estrogen or androgen content. Menopause, 15(6), 1157–1162. https://doi.org/10.1097/gme.0b013e3181732953
- Tagliaferri, V., Romualdi, D., Immediata, V., De Cicco, S., Di Florio, C., Lanzone, A., & Guido, M. (2017). Metformin vs myoinositol: which is better in obese polycystic ovary syndrome patients? A randomized controlled crossover study. Clinical Endocrinology, 86(5), 725–730. https://doi.org/10.1111/cen.13304
- Fruzzetti, F., Perini, D., Russo, M., Bucci, F., & Gadducci, A. (2017). Comparison of two insulin sensitizers, metformin and myo-inositol, in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Gynecological Endocrinology, 33(1), 39–42. https://doi.org/10.1080/09513590.2016.1236078
- Minozzi, M., D’Andrea, G., & Unfer, V. (2008). Treatment of hirsutism with myo-inositol: A prospective clinical study. Reproductive BioMedicine Online, 17(4), 579–582. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1472-6483(10)60248-9
- Zacchè, M. M., Caputo, L., Filippis, S., Zacchè, G., Dindelli, M., & Ferrari, A. (2009). Efficacy of myo-inositol in the treatment of cutaneous disorders in young women with polycystic ovary syndrome. Gynecological Endocrinology, 25(8), 508–513. https://doi.org/10.1080/09513590903015544
- E Carmina. (n.d.). PCOS: metabolic impact and long-term management - PubMed. Retrieved April 29, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23232534/
- Genazzani, A. D., Prati, A., Santagni, S., Ricchieri, F., Chierchia, E., Rattighieri, E., Campedelli, A., Simoncini, T., & Artini, P. G. (2012). Differential insulin response to myo-inositol administration in obese polycystic ovary syndrome patients. Gynecological Endocrinology, 28(12), 969–973. https://doi.org/10.3109/09513590.2012.685205
- Maeba, R., Hara, H., Ishikawa, H., Hayashi, S., Yoshimura, N., Kusano, J., Takeoka, Y., Yasuda, D., Okazaki, T., Kinoshita, M., & Teramoto, T. (2008). Myo-inositol treatment increases serum plasmalogens and decreases small dense LDL, particularly in hyperlipidemic subjects with metabolic syndrome. Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology, 54(3), 196–202. https://doi.org/10.3177/jnsv.54.196
- S Gerli, E Papaleo, A Ferrari, & G C Di Renzo. (n.d.). Randomized, double blind placebo-controlled trial: effects of myo-inositol on ovarian function and metabolic factors in women with PCOS - PubMed. Retrieved April 29, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18074942/
- Momoeda, M., Sasaki, H., Tagashira, E., Ogishima, M., Takano, Y., & Ochiai, K. (2014). Efficacy and safety of vitex agnus-castus extract for treatment of premenstrual syndrome in Japanese patients: A prospective, open-label study. Advances in Therapy, 31(3), 362–373. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12325-014-0106-z
- Medicines Agency, E. (2010). 7 Westferry Circus • Canary Wharf • London E14 4HB • United Kingdom. https://www.ema.europa.eu/en/documents/herbal-report/superseded-assessment-report-vitex-agnus-castus-l-fructus-first-version_en.pdf
- Schellenberg, R. (2001). Treatment for the premenstrual syndrome with agnus castus fruit extract: Prospective, randomised, placebo controlled study. British Medical Journal, 322(7279), 134–137. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.322.7279.134
- Berger, D., Schaffner, W., Schrader, E., Meier, B., & Brattström, A. (2000). Efficacy of Vitex agnus castus L. extract Ze 440 in patients with pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS). Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics, 264(3), 150–153. https://doi.org/10.1007/s004040000123
- Ma, L., Lin, S., Chen, R., Zhang, Y., Chen, F., & Wang, X. (2010). Evaluating therapeutic effect in symptoms of moderate-to-severe premenstrual syndrome with Vitex agnus castus (BNO 1095) in Chinese women. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 50(2), 189–193. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1479-828X.2010.01137.x
- Mehrangiz Zamani, Nosrat Neghab, & Saadat Torabian. (n.d.). Therapeutic effect of Vitex agnus castus in patients with premenstrual syndrome - PubMed. Retrieved April 29, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22359078/
- Sorge, R. E., Martin, L. J., Isbester, K. A., Sotocinal, S. G., Rosen, S., Tuttle, A. H., Wieskopf, J. S., Acland, E. L., Dokova, A., Kadoura, B., Leger, P., Mapplebeck, J. C. S., McPhail, M., Delaney, A., Wigerblad, G., Schumann, A. P., Quinn, T., Frasnelli, J., Svensson, C. I., … Mogil, J. S. (2014). Olfactory exposure to males, including men, causes stress and related analgesia in rodents. Nature Methods, 11(6), 629–632. https://doi.org/10.1038/nmeth.2935
- Pandey, U. B., & Nichols, C. D. (2011). Human disease models in drosophila melanogaster and the role of the fly in therapeutic drug discovery. Pharmacological Reviews, 63(2), 411–436. https://doi.org/10.1124/pr.110.003293