Should Everyone Take a Prenatal Vitamin?

Prenatal vitamins are important for ensuring the health of the mother and baby during pregnancy. From preventing anemia to protecting babies from birth defects, the benefits of optimal nutrition before and during pregnancy are well documented. 

Since these supplements offer so many health benefits for pregnant women, you might be wondering if taking them outside of pregnancy could be beneficial too. You may have heard celebrities like Mindy Kaling attribute prenatals to longer, thicker hair, stronger nails, and glowing skin. While these beauty perks are often associated with pregnancy, prenatals may not deserve all the credit. And besides that – what science is there to back up these claims? 

Pregnant women require higher amounts of certain nutrients, and we know that taking supplements in excess over a long period of time can cause everything from stomach issues to liver problems.

Let’s take a look at the science behind what prenatals do, who should take them and when, and the pros and cons of taking them for the beauty benefits so you can make an informed decision.

What Are Prenatal Vitamins?

Prenatals or prenatal vitamins are supplements specifically formulated for optimizing nutrition during pregnancy. Growing a baby requires more iron, calcium, folate, choline, and DHA just to name a few. In fact, a study published in 2019 concluded that doctors most often recommended supplementing iron and folic acid during pregnancy. This is because folic acid is important for the proper formation of the neural tube, which forms into the brain and spinal cord. This formation happens very early in pregnancy, between 4-6 weeks.

Additionally, iron is often supplemented due to increased blood volume in the mother, which increases her daily iron requirement to 27mg; that’s 9g greater than the recommendation of 18mg daily for women of childbearing age. Prenatals reflect this, so if you aren’t pregnant or planning to be, getting too much iron could cause harm. 

Calcium is important during pregnancy because it is necessary for proper bone formation in the fetus. Calcium may also play a role in preventing preterm delivery and preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy that can result in seizures if untreated). A review of 14 randomized controlled trials from 2014 involving a total of over 15,000 women found that “the average risk of preeclampsia was reduced in those receiving calcium supplements compared to placebo.” 

As I’m sure you can tell, nutrition during pregnancy is vital, and prenatal supplements can help fill in the gaps for both mother and baby. There is not much research specific to taking a prenatal when you aren’t pregnant, but the following list should provide some insight as to the risks of taking too much of these common prenatal ingredients:

  • Folate or folic acid: excessive folic acid intake could mask a B12-deficiency-related anemia according to Harvard Health.
  • Iron: too much iron can cause constipation, diarrhea, stomach pain, nausea and vomiting. In the long-term it can cause heart and liver issues.
  • Calcium: too much calcium could cause kidney stones

Prenatal Vitamins vs. Multivitamins

There are some key differences between a prenatal and a typical multivitamin. While different brands vary on which nutrients they emphasize, here is a list of some extra nutrients you would be getting if you chose to take a prenatal over a multivitamin:

  • DHA: from fatty fish (frequently found in fish oil); helps with healthy brain development
  • Choline: important for brain function and reducing risk of pregnancy complications
  • Folate: commonly included in its synthetic form, folic acid; prevents neural tube defects
  • Iron: needed to ensure healthy blood function for mother and baby and to prevent anemia
  • Iodine: important for proper hormone regulation during pregnancy and thyroid development for baby
  • Zinc: important for proper cell and DNA development for baby

Pros of Multivitamins

Multivitamins are formulated to help fill in the gaps of a healthy, balanced diet. They are intended for use in adults, and there are types formulated specifically for nonpregnant women. Taking a multivitamin may be better for you if you want to make sure you are getting adequate nutrients, but don’t want to worry about the risks of getting too much of any certain vitamin or mineral.

If you are interested in taking a prenatal to get benefits such as better hair, skin and nails, a multivitamin paired with a healthy diet may be sufficient and save you the risks associated with taking a prenatal unnecessarily. 

Pros of Prenatal Vitamins

Women who are not actively preventing pregnancy may benefit from taking a prenatal. Considering about half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned and the earliest stages of development are some of the most important, it would not be a bad idea to make sure you’ve got good nutrition stores prior to conception. That’s one less thing to worry about if you do end up pregnant unexpectedly!

However, you need to be mindful of the risks involved with taking amounts of vitamins that are intended for women who are pregnant. If you do decide to take a prenatal, there is good news–many prenatals do not contain iron because it competes for absorption with calcium, so if you are concerned about iron toxicity, be sure to read the label to find one that does not contain it.

Most importantly, talk to your doctor before starting any new supplement regimen. They know your history, pre-existing conditions, and current health concerns and can help you decide if taking a prenatal could be a safe option for you at this time. 

Who Should Take a Prenatal? 

It is recommended that women who are thinking about becoming pregnant start a prenatal supplement 3-6 months prior to trying to conceive. This is because having good stores of the proper nutrients in your body before conception can ensure that you are able to provide your baby everything it needs. Many women do not realize they are pregnant until the baby is a few weeks old and this time is critical developmentally.

Women who are currently pregnant, especially those at risk for folate, iron, or calcium deficiency, should consider taking a prenatal. Most doctors and OBGYNs will recommend starting one as soon as you find out you are pregnant.

In addition to heightened needs during pregnancy, the first trimester often greets women with a host of symptoms that can affect their eating habits. Morning sickness, fatigue, and food aversions are common during the first several weeks, so taking a prenatal can serve as good coverage to make up for any nutrient losses during this time.  

Getting Healthy Hair, Skin, & Nails from a Healthy Diet 

While supplements can serve as helpful tools in improving our health, it’s still important to get as much nutrition as you can from your diet alone. Supplements can get expensive and taking too much of a good thing can have the opposite of the intended effect.

Surprisingly, some doctors say you don’t have to take a prenatal during pregnancy if you eat a healthy, balanced diet. A supplement can be used as a sort of “safety net,” but it’s not a cure-all. The last thing you want is a false sense of security!

Getting a healthy amount of vitamins like biotin through your diet may help with hair, skin and nail growth. Although there is conflicting data surrounding biotin for this purpose, some studies have shown promise.

Food sources of biotin include:

  • Eggs
  • Oats
  • Spinach
  • Dairy and dairy products
  • Whole grain wheat products 
  • Almonds
  • Cauliflower
  • Mushrooms
  • Sweet potato

In addition to the possibility that including these foods in your diet may help you achieve your beauty goals, you’ll also be getting other important nutrients such as fiber, protein, healthy fats, and more! So whatever you decide to do, remember: talk with your doctor about your options, because there are multiple ways to achieve your health goals.

Don’t be afraid to tell your doctor that you’re interested in taking a prenatal. Equipped with the information you’ve gathered here, you and your doctor can partner to make a decision that’s best for you and your health.

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