Not trying to conceive right now, but definitely have babies on your bucket list? Learn the benefits of taking prenatals before even trying to get pregnant.
By OBGYN and fertility expert Dr. Kenosha Gleaton
Prenatal nutrition has a significant impact on your overall pregnancy and health outcomes for both you and your baby. A prenatal vitamin is a dietary supplement that includes all the key ingredients you need to enhance your health. So, if you’re starting to get the slightest case of baby fever, it's time to evaluate your diet and pre-pregnancy routine.
Why take a prenatal vitamin supplement, and who should take them?
While there are lots of women's daily vitamins on the market, prenatal vitamins are the only solid way to ensure you’re getting all of the vitamins and minerals that your body needs prior to conceiving. The general recommendation is for women of reproductive age to take a prenatal vitamin if they are not preventing pregnancy, planning to TTC in the near future, actively TTC, pregnant, or breastfeeding. This recommendation stems from the fact that up to 50% of pregnancies in the United States are unintended. Furthermore, many such pregnancies are unrecognized for the first four to six weeks—which represents a vital time for organ development, mainly the brain and spinal cord.
When to start taking prenatal vitamins
Although, there is no clearly defined timeframe, ideally it’s best to start prenatal vitamins at least one month prior to trying to conceive. ACOG states that you should take a daily prenatal vitamin before pregnancy as well as throughout. It’s easy to see the rationale behind this recommendation since prenatal vitamins contain all of the recommended daily vitamins and minerals you will need before, during, and after your pregnancy, including folate and iron.
Benefits of taking prenatal vitamins before TTC
Although studies do not support consuming prenatal vitamins for long periods of time when not intending to get pregnant, there is clear benefit to starting prior to actively TTC and of course before pregnancy. These benefits include:
- A lower risk of miscarriage
- Reduced nausea and vomiting when prenatal vitamins started before pregnancy
- Reduced birth defects
Things to look for when picking your prenatal vitamins
- Folate: This is the one you’ve likely heard about. Folate is a B vitamin (B9) that provides significant protection against neural tube defects. Neural tube defects are developmental abnormalities of the brain and spinal cord, including spina bifida and anencephaly. There are many different types of folates found in food, but the two most commonly found in dietary supplements are folic acid and 5-L-MTHF, abbreviated MTHF folate. We’ll delve into the difference between MTHF folate and folic acid later, but make sure that whatever prenatal you choose has at least one. Folate can also be found in dark leafy greens, lentils, beans, and legumes. Many foods where folate is not naturally found are fortified with folic acid, especially grains, which you can check on the nutritional info panel.
- Iron: Your body uses iron to make hemoglobin, the protein that red blood cells use to transport oxygen. In your lungs, hemoglobin binds oxygen and carries it to all the tissues in your body, including a developing embryo via the placenta. The total amount of blood in a woman’s body will increase by 50% during pregnancy, so iron is in high demand. If you feel more tired than usual, it could be because you’re iron deficient, also known as anemia. During pregnancy, doctors will routinely test for anemia by a simple blood test. Iron is found in its highest amounts in red meat (heme iron) but is also naturally present in plant-based sources like dark leafy greens, beans, and dried fruit (non-heme iron). Non-heme iron is best absorbed when it is eaten with a source of Vitamin C, like citrus fruits.
- Calcium: It’s the mineral used to build your bones and teeth, and for your baby’s, too. Dairy, dark leafy greens, and calcium-fortified orange juice (check the nutritional label) are all good food-based sources of calcium.
- Vitamin D: Many nutrients are dependent on another to function or to be absorbed. Vitamin D and calcium have that kind of relationship—you can take as much calcium as you want, but your body won’t be able to absorb it properly without vitamin D. Fatty fish (like salmon) and vitamin D-fortified dairy are good sources. You also get vitamin D from spending time in the sun. Too much sun exposure—especially without protection from sunscreen or clothes—can lead to skin cancer, so if you want to sunbathe or go for a walk in the name of vitamin D, do so in moderation. As an alternative, a simple way to increase your vitamin D intake is to take vitamin D gummies or capsules.
- DHA: This stands for docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid that supports fetal brain and eye development. It's an integral component of neuronal cell membranes, and supplementing with a DHA supplement is tied to the on-time attainment of key developmental milestones and infant problem-solving abilities. It’s found in low-mercury fish and DHA-enriched orange juice, milk, and eggs.
- Iodine: This mineral helps your baby’s organs and nervous system develop properly. It’s found in iodized salt (usually labeled as such) as well as dairy, fish, and iodine-fortified bread.
- Choline: Most prenatals lack choline. But growing evidence of its benefits shows choline improves several pregnancy outcomes and protects against certain neural and metabolic disorders.
The bottom line is to stick with a prenatal that’s been researched and doctor approved to ensure you’re getting the appropriate amount. You can read more about prenatal vitamins and their importance here.
How to take prenatal vitamins
The benefits of prenatal vitamins are cumulative, so the most important factor is to take one daily. If you’re nausea prone, it's often best to take them before bed. If you’re iron deficient, try taking your prenatal vitamin with a vitamin C beverage such as orange juice. Again, the most important thing is consistency. So if you’re having negative side effects, choose a prenatal vitamin free of starch, dairy, artificial coloring, preservatives, or flavoring, which can theoretically worsen unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms.
Are there harms to taking prenatal vitamins if not trying to get pregnant?
Although prenatal vitamins are a wonderful source of nutrients and minerals, they should not replace a multivitamin if you do not fall into one of these categories: women of reproductive age not preventing pregnancy, planning to TTC in the near future, actively TTC, pregnant, or breastfeeding. And while most of us want the benefit of beautiful hair, skin, and nails, these claims are unproven. Furthermore, long term use of prenatal vitamins can lead to toxicity of iron, vitamin A, and can even mask certain GI conditions.
Optimizing before destination pregnancy
I know what you’re thinking. Most of us are looking to simplify our lives and taking a prenatal vitamin before actively TTC seems like an overachieving, unnecessary task. However, there are proven benefits of optimizing your nutritional status before destination pregnancy. Reducing miscarriage and birth defects rank pretty high on that list. So, in your quest for simplicity, check out Natalist’s prenatal vitamins.