Last updated: Sep 22, 2010
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Maybe you take some echinacea when you feel a cold coming on or sip a little chamomile tea to soothe an upset tummy. Smart moves. But which natural health boosters should you take regularly—and when?


The answers are extra important during tough financial times, when more and more Americans are buying vitamins and supplements as they struggle to afford traditional health care.

And because women are the biggest users of supplements, its critical that they know which ones really work. To make safe and effective buys, try this age-targeted advice from leading womens-health experts.

Your 30s

Calcium
You may not realize that your bone health starts waning in your late 30s. That means its never too early to maximize bone density with calcium, says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Yale School of Medicine.

“Calcium may also ease menstrual cramps because it appears to regulate muscle contractions,” she says. Shoot for a total (through diet and supplements) of 1,000 milligrams a day during your 30s and 40s, and 1,200 to 1,500 in your 50s and beyond. Dr. Minkin recommends taking the cheapest brand that agrees with your stomach—the antacid TUMS E-X 750, whose active ingredient is calcium carbonate, works well and contains 300 milligrams of calcium per tablet ($5.49; Drugstore.com). If you love chocolate, try Viactiv; it contains 500 milligrams of calcium and just 20 calories per piece ($11.49).

Magnesium and Iron If you feel cranky at the end of your cycle, 200 milligrams of magnesium may help relax you, says Roberta Anne Lee, MD, vice chair of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. But you dont need to take it every day. Daily iron pills might make sense, experts say, because plenty of women are iron-deficient as they age; they either dont get enough iron from their diets or are low because of blood loss during their periods. Ask your doc to check your iron level with a simple blood test. If its low, aim for 18 milligrams of iron a day to keep your energy up.


Omega-3 supplements
Omega-3s are essential fatty acids found in fish, especially salmon, sardines, and mackerel. Taking them in your 30s can help lessen the symptoms of PMS and menstrual cramps, Dr. Lee says. They also may be key to the healthy development of a babys brain during pregnancy and may reduce the risk of postpartum depression.

Eleuthero and Licorice
Job stress or parenting pressure wearing you down? These two herbs—known as adaptogens, for their ability to help the body adapt to stress—fight fatigue without being overstimulating, according to Sheila Kingsbury, a naturopathic physician and chair of the Botanical Medicine Department at Bastyr University in Washington state.

“I have women take these two herbs at 8 a.m. and noon,” she says. Look for liquid tinctures and take about 1 teaspoon of each in a little water. The Herbalist & Alchemist brand is available at health-food stores and online ($21.70); check Herb-Pharm.com and OregonsWildHarvest.com, too.

What you need in your 40s

Black cohosh
Hot flashes and night sweats can begin four to five years before your periods end. Dr. Minkin recommends black cohosh, an herb that works like an antidepressant, to patients suffering with these symptoms. One popular supplement is Remifemin ($30.99).

Probiotics
“I cant overstate how important it is for women facing perimenopause to enhance their gut health,” Dr. Lee says. The reason: Estrogen is partly broken down in the intestines, and having healthy levels of beneficial bacteria—probiotics—in the intestines can help ease hot flashes and night sweats.

Take a daily probiotic supplement containing at least 10 billion colony-forming units, such as Natures Way Primadophilus Optima ($21.99; ), which got good grades from independent supplement evaluator.

Flaxseed Do you feel less regular as you get older? Thats natural, but the fiber in flaxseed can help. Try 2 tablespoons of freshly ground flaxseed stirred into a high-fiber cereal or low-fat yogurt daily.

Vitamin B12 Most women in their 40s know exhaustion all too well. Not only are work and family demands sky-high, but hormone ups and downs make it harder to sleep. Normal levels of B12 can help, but we gradually lose the capacity to absorb and process this vitamin as we age. You can get it from meat, eggs, and dairy products.

But, generally, its healthier to limit your intake of those foods. Kingsbury recommends up to 200 micrograms of B12 a day (as part of a B-complex supplement) to help boost flagging energy.


Your 50s+

Vitamin D
Its not uncommon to become deficient in vitamin D as you get older, particularly in northern climates. That can lead to weak bones, mood problems, achy joints, and even higher risks of some cancers just as your risks are naturally on the upswing, says Machelle Seibel, MD, director of the Complicated Menopause Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Massachusetts.

“Women in their 50s should get their D levels checked,” he advises. Depending on the results, he suggests taking 1,000 to 2,000 IU a day, more than double the recommended amount. Your doc might prescribe a 50,000 IU supplement if your levels are way under par.

Replens
This moisturizer helps to replenish vaginal fluids that diminish with menopause. And studies suggest that Replens ($16.99) increases the thickness of vaginal tissue and restores its elasticity. Both benefits may make sex more enjoyable.

Hawthorn Nearly 60% of women over 55 have high blood pressure. Exercising and eating right are essential for BP control, but Kingsbury also recommends hawthorn. “It helps control inflammation, lowers blood pressure slightly, and eases congested blood vessels,” she says. Try HeartCare tablets by Natures Way ($7.29) or mix Hawthorn Solid Extract from Herbalist & Alchemist ($16.75) into water or yogurt.

Zinc
If your hair is thinning, the problem may be linked to a common zinc deficiency among women in their 50s. Dr. Lees advice: Take 15 to 30 milligrams of zinc daily. The mineral may also boost immunity and help lower risks for age-related eye problems.