Prenatal Vitamins: Benefits, Side Effects and How to Choose the Best Prenatal Vitamins

Everybody needs certain vitamins and minerals for their overall well-being and good health.1 However, women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to become pregnant need to get much more of certain vitamins and minerals as compared to other people.2 Such women especially need to increase their intake of folic acid.3 While, of course, women tend to as it is eat healthy when they are pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to get pregnant, still, most doctors today prescribe certain prenatal vitamins or supplements that they need to take in order to ensure that they are getting a complete range of vitamins and minerals their bodies need at this time to support themselves and the developing baby properly. Here’s everything you need to know about prenatal vitamins.

What are Prenatal Vitamins?

Prenatal vitamins are a special type of nutritional supplements that are typically prescribed to women who are trying to conceive, are pregnant, or are breastfeeding. These vitamins contain a concentrated mix of various vitamins and minerals that a woman’s body needs more of when pregnant.

Ideally, the best time to start taking prenatal vitamins is when a woman starts trying to become pregnant. These should be continued throughout the pregnancy and also when she is breastfeeding.

Some women start taking customized individual prenatal vitamins as separate supplements, but it is usually easier to take these in the form of one multivitamin supplement.

You should start taking your prenatal vitamins before you conceive, as it helps in the development of the baby’s neural tube.4 A baby’s neural tube will go onto develop into both the spinal cord and the brain. The neural tube develops during the very first month of your pregnancy, and if you do not realize that you are pregnant and you are not taking your prenatal vitamins, there could be a risk of neural tube defects.5

If you are not already on a daily prenatal vitamin, you should start taking one as soon as you find out about your pregnancy. You will need to continue taking your prenatal vitamin every day during the pregnancy. Your doctor is most likely to recommend that you continue taking your prenatal vitamins after delivery, especially if you are going to breastfeed.

What are the Benefits of Taking Prenatal Vitamins?

Taking certain prenatal vitamins can help cut down the risk of complications for both the mother and your growing fetus. They also support a mother in carrying a baby to full term. Here are some of the main benefits of taking prenatal vitamins daily.

It Acts As A Back Up To Your Diet: It is almost impossible to come up with a nutritionally perfect diet every day, especially when you are in the early stages of your pregnancy, which is usually marked by round-the-clock morning sickness. This type of morning sickness is a common appetite suppressant for women, due to which many essential vitamins and minerals may get left out of their diets. Although a daily prenatal supplement cannot take the place of consuming a well-balanced prenatal diet, it still serves as a dietary back up or insurance. Taking daily prenatal vitamins guarantees that your baby will not miss any vitamins and minerals even if your diet is missing out on certain nutrients. Many women, for example, are found to be deficient in vitamin D. Taking a prenatal vitamin can help increase your vitamin D levels to what they should be.6,7

It Helps Reduce Nausea: Vitamin B6, a common vitamin present in all prenatal multivitamins, helps cut back on nausea. Research has shown that women who take a daily prenatal multivitamin that contains at least 10 mcg of vitamin B6 before conceiving and/or during the first few weeks of their pregnancy tend to experience less nausea during the first trimester or morning sickness.8

Prenatal Vitamins Reduce The Risk Of Congenital Disabilities: One of the most important and well-known reasons to take a prenatal vitamin every day is because of the presence of folic acid, or vitamin B9. When you take vitamin B9 in food form, it is known as folate. Studies have indicated that getting a sufficient amount of folic acid and vitamin B12 before the sperm meets the egg in the starting stages of pregnancy can significantly decrease the risk of having a baby with neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. It also reduces the risk of congenital heart defects in the developing fetus.9,10

They Help Bring Down The Risk Of Autism: Various studies have shown that children of mothers who took prenatal vitamins regularly before as well as during their pregnancy are less likely to have any autism spectrum disorders. This has been found to be true for even high-risk families.11 Families that already have a child with autism are known to be at a high risk of another child with an autism spectrum disorder. The younger siblings in such cases are up to 14 times more likely to develop autism as compared to the general population because of the genetic heritability of autism spectrum disorder.12

Prenatal Vitamins Help Bring Down The Risk Of Preterm Birth: Taking a prenatal vitamin regularly throughout your pregnancy has been associated with a lower risk of preterm birth. This is considered to be because of the presence of vitamin B12 in these vitamins. Studies have shown that vitamin B12 deficiency is linked with a lower birth weight and preterm birth.13

Benefits of Specific Prenatal Vitamins

Here are some of the specific benefits of the vitamins and minerals contained in the prenatal vitamins:

Folic Acid

Folic acid is one of the most important components of prenatal vitamins and a must-have during your pregnancy. Taking folic acid before you become pregnant and throughout your pregnancy can help cut down the risk of neural tube defects. Neural tubes are the embryonic structures that go on to form the brain and spine of the fetus. Neural tube defects can lead to serious brain and spinal conditions, especially spina bifida, a condition where some parts of the backbone do not close correctly.14

Folic acid helps a pregnant woman’s body manufacture more red blood cells, thus decreasing the risk of anemia. Anemia may lead to pregnancy complications like:15

Importance Of Other Vitamins And Minerals

Apart from folic acid, there are many other vital nutrients that are present in prenatal vitamins that are beneficial for pregnant and breastfeeding women and their developing fetuses. These include:

Vitamin A: This vitamin is essential in helping cells grow and differentiate. Vitamin A contributes to the healthy development of many vital organs of the developing fetus and the eyes.

Vitamin B6: This vitamin plays a critical role in the cognitive development, immune function, glucose metabolism, and blood formation of the baby. This also helps decrease nausea during pregnancy.

Vitamin B12: It is essential in manufacturing healthy neurons and red blood cells. Neurons are specialized cells that are found in the spinal cord and brain. Vitamin B12 also helps red blood cells and neurons to function correctly.

Calcium and vitamin D: Both of these work together to help in the development of fetal bones and teeth. Vitamin D also plays a critical role in the healthy development of skin and eyes. Calcium has a crucial role to play in reducing the risk of preeclampsia, which is one of the leading causes of disease and death in pregnant women and newborn babies.16

Iodine: Iodine is a trace element that can be found in prenatal vitamins. It is essential for the proper development of the brain, skeletal system, and central nervous system. It is important to know that severe iodine deficiencies in pregnant women may lead to slow fetal growth and may also result in stillbirth, miscarriage, or neurodevelopmental defects.17,18

How To Choose The Best Prenatal Vitamin?

If you have a complication pregnancy or other health concerns, your doctor is likely to prescribe certain prenatal supplements for you. Otherwise also, taking over-the-counter prenatal vitamins are easily available online or at any pharmacy.

There are many brands of prenatal vitamins available, making it difficult to decide which prenatal vitamin would be the best for you. Here are some things that you should look for while buying prenatal vitamins:

  • 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid
  • 200 to 300 milligrams (mg) of calcium
  • 150 micrograms of iodine
  • 400 IU of vitamin D
  • 70 mg of vitamin C
  • 20 mg of niacin
  • 3 mg of thiamine
  • 2 mg of riboflavin
  • 6 mcg of vitamin B12
  • 15 mg of zinc
  • 17 mg of iron
  • 10 mg of vitamin E

If you are unable to find some brand that includes these nutrients in this exact configuration, here are some of the essential vitamins and minerals that should be included in whatever brand of prenatal vitamins you buy:

  • Folate
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Copper
  • Magnesium
  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamins A, C, D, E

It has been observed that most pregnant women do not get a sufficient amount of choline, which is why it is important to include plenty of choline-rich foods in your diet. Egg yolks are one of the richest sources of choline you should be taking in pregnancy. You can also take a supplement of choline during this time. Choline has a huge role to play in your health, especially in pregnancy. It is essential for ensuring proper fetal brain development and placental function.19,20

There are some prenatal supplements that also contain DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid), which is also a crucial nutrient needed for the growth of your baby’s brain tissue growth and function. DHA is especially important during the third trimester. If you find that your prenatal multivitamin does not contain DHA in it, you can ask your doctor for recommendations on which DHA supplements to take.21

Are There Any Side Effects Of Taking Prenatal Vitamins?

In general, the vitamins and minerals that are included in most prenatal vitamins do not cause any adverse side effects. If they had any type of detrimental health effects, pregnant women would never be encouraged to take them.22

However, prenatal vitamins do contain some levels of nutrients that are specific to pregnant women, which means they might not be ideal for people who are not pregnant for the long-term. For example, a person’s iron needs to go up from 18 milligrams to 27 milligrams when you become pregnant. The short-term side effects of taking too much iron can include mild stomach complications like constipation and nausea. In the longer run, an excess of nutrients like iron can cause more problems.23

If you are not pregnant or not planning to get pregnant, there is no need to start taking prenatal vitamins until you really need to take them.

The iron present in prenatal vitamins can lead to constipation in many people. Here are some tips to prevent constipation:

  • Include more fiber in your diet.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Include regular physical activity in your daily routine, but with the approval of your doctor.
  • In severe cases of constipation, you can ask your doctor about using a stool softener.

Conclusion

If you are seriously trying to become pregnant in the next couple of months, beginning a prenatal vitamin should definitely be on top of your to-do list. If you are already pregnant and you are not yet taking a prenatal vitamin, you should begin taking one at the earliest. It will not only help you remain strong and healthy, but it is also needed for the healthy growth and proper development of your baby.

However, if you are not serious about becoming pregnant at the moment, but there is a probability of becoming pregnant, it is still recommended that you take a daily folic acid supplement. Taking this will ensure that you will keep getting the required nutrients should you become pregnant while not putting unnecessary excess prenatal nutrients into your body.

References:

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  11. Schmidt, R.J., Iosif, A.M., Angel, E.G. and Ozonoff, S., 2019. Association of maternal prenatal vitamin use with risk for autism spectrum disorder recurrence in young siblings. JAMA psychiatry, 76(4), pp.391-398.
  12. Ozonoff, S., Young, G.S., Carter, A., Messinger, D., Yirmiya, N., Zwaigenbaum, L., Bryson, S., Carver, L.J., Constantino, J.N., Dobkins, K. and Hutman, T., 2011. Recurrence risk for autism spectrum disorders: a Baby Siblings Research Consortium study. Pediatrics, 128(3), pp.e488-e495.
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  14. Maternal vitamin B12 in pregnancy and risk of preterm birth and low birth weight: A systematic review and individual participant data meta-analysis. American journal of epidemiology, 185(3), p.212.
  15. Houk, V.N., Oakley, G.P., Erickson, J.D., Mulinare, J. and James, L.M., 1992. Recommendations for the use of folic acid to reduce the number of cases of spina bifida and other neural tube defects.
  16. Yakoob, M.Y. and Bhutta, Z.A., 2011. Effect of routine iron supplementation with or without olic acid on anemia during pregnancy. BMC public health, 11(S3), p.S21.
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