But have you ever considered taking prenatals when you’re not pregnant? There’s plenty of incentives like healthy hair and skin, fertility benefits, and just an overall vitamin and mineral boost. Since they’re designed specifically for pregnancy, you might be curious if they’re safe—or the best—vitamin for you. So, we spoke with three reproductive health experts about their thoughts, and to learn the possible benefits and risks of taking prenatal vitamins when you’re not pregnant.
Prenatal vitamins vs. regular vitamins
You won’t find many differences between the ingredient lists of prenatal vitamins and women’s multivitamins. They both typically contain nutrients like calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc, and vitamins A, B, C, D, and E. What you will see are different amounts of these ingredients.
Pregnancy requires higher levels of nutrients like folic acid and iron to help reduce the risk of maternal anemia and iron deficiency. OB/GYN Jessica Shepherd, MD, says that what makes prenatals different is they help provide the correct amount of these daily nutrients for a healthy pregnancy, whereas some multivitamins might have a little folic acid or iron, but not necessarily enough to meet the recommended dosage for pregnant people.
Yet with that added iron and folate (and vitamin D), prenatal supplements are something most people who are menstruating would benefit from taking as their daily multivitamin, says naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist Amanda Frick, ND, LAc, vice president of medical affairs at Thorne, a science-driven wellness company. “The biggest reason for this is that prenatal supplements usually contain iron, while not every multivitamin or mineral supplement does,” she says. “Because a woman loses iron monthly through her menstrual cycle, taking a prenatal supplement helps replenish the iron we need for our red blood cell health and feeling vibrant. Many women also notice their hair and nails are stronger when they are taking a prenatal supplement.”
Omega-3 fatty acids and choline (important brain-boosting nutrients) are also often present in prenatal vitamins and not always in regular multivitamins. One thing to note: Calcium might be limited or left out of a prenatal vitamin because it interferes with iron absorption.
Prenatals and their folic acid benefits
Almost everyone can benefit from taking a multivitamin, but if you want to swap it with a prenatal, there’s little risk in doing so. Dr. Frick says this is an especially good idea if you’re planning on becoming pregnant in the near future.
“Prenatal supplements have nutrients that are essential to a healthy early pregnancy,” she says. “In fact, neurological development is nearly complete by the time most women realize they are pregnant. Because folate is so critical for neurological development, it’s very important to be sufficient in folate before becoming pregnant to ensure healthy neurological development.”
If you need additional motivation, consider the potential impact on your fertility: A 2016 study found that women who used folic acid were 15 percent more likely to become pregnant within 12 cycles, and folic acid increased the chances of pregnancy by 36 percent among women with short cycles (less than 27 days).
Folic acid has other benefits beyond pregnancy, as well. It has also been shown to prevent stroke and heart disease: Some studies show that supplementing with folic acid may lead to a four percent reduction in overall risk for heart disease and a 10 percent reduction in stroke risk. Folic acid can also boost hair growth or help with hair loss and thinning, and is even recommended in seniors to prevent memory decline.
Should you take prenatals while breastfeeding?
The short answer is, yes. Part of any postpartum care plan should include nourishing your body with nutrient-rich food, and supplementing with a prenatal while breastfeeding helps ensure you're getting the adequate nutrition you need to repair and recover from the birthing experience, and that the right nutrients are being supplied for baby through your breastmilk.
However, Mary Jacobson, MD, chief medical officer of women’s health platform Hello Alpha and a board-certified OB/GYN, says that prenatal vitamins during breastfeeding should be individualized: A clinician should screen those breastfeeding regarding their diet and vitamin supplements to confirm they are meeting recommended daily allowances of essential nutrients and vitamins.
It’s also important to be consistent with the nutrients and vitamins that your body is intaking during pregnancy and shortly after. Making any abrupt changes or shifts in your daily vitamin intake could cause problems or a nutrient imbalance.
Instances where prenatals are not recommended
The biggest reason to avoid using a prenatal supplement as your daily multivitamin or mineral supplement would be if you have issues with iron overload, or if your healthcare practitioner has asked you to avoid an iron supplement, says Dr. Frick. If this is the case, then opting for a daily multivitamin or mineral supplement without iron (or choosing to supplement with targeted nutrients for your individual health goals) would be best for you.
Like any supplement, you should discuss prenatals with your doctor before taking them to ensure you’re choosing the right one and getting the best benefits. “Due to the iron levels in the prenatal vitamin, it may bring along constipation as well as stomach cramping, upset stomach, and change in bowel movements,” says Dr. Shepherd. She adds that it is also important to ensure that prenatals won’t interfere with any medications you’re taking. For instance, some blood pressure and heart medications can interact with prenatal vitamins, so be sure to go over medication lists with your OB/GYN.
Another common side effect is nausea, in addition to stomach upset or diarrhea. This can be helped by taking prenatal vitamins with food and also using ginger prior to taking the prenatal vitamins. And if you have trouble swallowing pills, consider gummy prenatal vitamins (though note that most gummies come without iron, so be sure to check the ingredients).
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