1. Getting pregnant
  2. Trying to conceive
  3. Health and fitness

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Prenatal Vitamins: The Ultimate Guide

When chosen with specific nutrients in mind, prenatal vitamins can be an important part of your pregnancy, as well as your pre- and post-pregnancy experience. Given the importance of certain nutrients, such as folic acid and iron, it’s useful to understand how they function for both you and your baby’s health. Read on to learn the benefits of taking prenatal vitamins, as well as which specific nutrients you need during pregnancy and after.  

While getting vitamins and minerals from food is the best and most efficient way to give your body the nutrition you need, the nutrients found in certain prenatal vitamins can also help protect the health of you and your baby.

Folic acid is the most important nutrient in prenatal vitamins. Getting enough folic acid is important to prevent your baby from developing any neural tube defects. The neural tube, which develops into the brain and spinal cord, needs folic acid to close correctly. If the neural tube doesn’t close properly, it can result in spina bifida. In this condition, the spinal cord or vertebrae do not develop completely. Anencephaly, a condition where major parts of the brain do not develop, is another potential neural tube defect. These are serious complications, resulting in permanent disability or even death, so it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough of this important vitamin. 

Adequate folic acid may also protect you from complications during pregnancy, including preeclampsia. This is a serious condition marked by high blood pressure and potentially fatal complications such as preterm birth or placental abruption. Outside of pregnancy, folic acid also protects you against heart and blood vessel diseases, dementia, and some forms of cancer.   

Iron is another essential nutrient that has a number of benefits, including protecting you against anemia, a condition where the blood has low levels of healthy red blood cells. Because your blood volume increases during pregnancy, it’s essential to get enough iron through diet or prenatal vitamins. The iron in your food is the easiest for your body to absorb, but your doctor may recommend taking iron supplements if you are at risk of having low iron or aren’t getting enough from your food. 

Taking prenatal vitamins helps support a healthy pregnancy by filling in any nutritional gaps you may have. However, some people experience queasiness or constipation as a result of taking prenatal vitamins. Some people also find the pills difficult to swallow.

You may find that taking prenatal vitamins on an empty stomach makes you feel nauseous. Taking your supplements with food can help prevent nausea. You might also consider a different brand. 

Iron is another essential nutrient that has a number of benefits, including protecting you against anemia, a condition where the blood has low levels of healthy red blood cells.

Some people find that the iron in prenatal vitamins gives them constipation. Making sure to get lots of liquids throughout the day, especially water, can help ease constipation. Getting enough fiber in your diet can also help with constipation. Beans, nuts, and fresh fruit are all good sources of fiber. Fiber supplements can also be helpful. You can also incorporate daily exercise if approved by your doctor. As a last resort, using a stool softener can help relieve constipation.  

If your prenatal vitamins are too large to swallow, you can try prenatal gummies, which are chewable. Just be sure to check to see if they contain iron and calcium. If they don’t, you may want to supplement these nutrients separately. Ask your doctor what time of the day you should consume them. You can also consider prenatal vitamin shakes or drinks. 

It’s a smart idea to begin taking a daily prenatal vitamin at least a month before you conceive. In general, experts agree that women of reproductive age should regularly take a prenatal vitamin. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specifically recommend taking folic acid for at least a month before becoming pregnant. Since the baby’s brain and spinal cord begin developing within the first month after conception, getting your folic acid levels up beforehand is recommended. At the very least, begin taking 400 micrograms of folic acid daily when you begin trying to conceive. 

In addition to getting folic acid and iron, you doctor may ask you to take a prenatal vitamin with the following nutrients:

  • Calcium
  • Zinc
  • Copper

Remember that eating a healthy diet filled with whole foods is one of the best protections against any nutrient deficiency. Eating plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy sources of meat and fish is a way to ensure you’re getting adequate vitamins and minerals. 

If you’re trying to conceive or are pregnant or breastfeeding, it’s almost always a good idea to take a prenatal vitamin to help cover any potential gaps in your nutrition. Make sure to consult your doctor before beginning to take any supplements. 

You can ask your doctor if they have any specific brand recommendations, especially if you have any health concerns or complications during your pregnancy. In cases like these, your doctor may give you prescription prenatal vitamins. Most women will be able to choose an over-the-counter prenatal vitamin themselves. 

Remember that eating a healthy diet filled with whole foods is one of the best protections against any nutrient deficiency.

Prenatal vitamins may include an omega-3 fatty acid called DHA. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for our health at any stage of life but even more so during pregnancy. Omega-3 fatty acids support fetal growth, particularly for the brain and eyes. Overall, omega-3 fatty acids can support a healthy heart, brain, cognitive function, eyes, joint mobility, skin, hair, and immune system.  

It can be hard to get enough omega-3 fatty acids from your food, so taking a supplement can ensure you and your growing baby get enough. Since the baby’s brain goes through its most complex and rapid development in utero, taking a prenatal vitamin with DHA is very important.

Ask your doctor if you are getting enough zinc and copper, both while pregnant and when you are trying to conceive.

While a severe deficiency of zinc is not common, the additional nutritional needs during pregnancy can mean a greater need for this essential mineral. Zinc helps your metabolism and immune system. 

Copper is another mineral essential for forming red blood cells. Since your blood supply increases during pregnancy, this is another important nutrient to look for in a prenatal vitamin. Make sure to ask your doctor about any additional supplements they recommend and what dosage you need. You may also be able to get these nutrients from food sources such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts. 

Prenatal vitamins, particularly folic acid and iron, can be an important part of a healthy pregnancy and birth. Taking a good prenatal vitamin with the recommended amount of daily folic acid ensures you and your baby get the nutrition you need. Omega-3 fatty acids are also important and can be found in prenatal DHA supplements. Make sure to consult with your doctor about what vitamins to take. 

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/in-depth/prenatal-vitamins/art-20046945

https://dtb.bmj.com/content/54/7/81

https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/folicacid/recommendations.html

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/prenatal-vitamins/faq-20057922

https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/folicacid/faqs/index.html

https://www.who.int/elena/bbc/zinc_pregnancy/en/

https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-zinc/art-20366112

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK235243/

https://www.cochrane.org/CD004072/PREG_vitamin-c-supplementation-pregnancy

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