Women who are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant should understand the benefits of taking prenatal supplements. During pregnancy, a woman’s need for nutrients like calcium, folic acid and iron become greater because both mother and baby need extra nourishment. Prenatal supplements can fill any nutritional void the mother may have in her diet by delivering nutrients that are essential for development, fetal growth and healthy living into adulthood (1). It’s important to note that not just any multivitamin will do; those formulated for pregnant women contain different levels of vitamins and minerals. Case in point, prenatal vitamins will have larger than usual amounts of iron, which are needed for the baby’s blood supply and to prevent iron-deficiency anemia.
Some prenatal multivitamins are available only by doctor’s prescription, while others are accessible in your local natural products stores. Women should keep in mind that natural versions contain no synthetic ingredients, often come in a variety of delivery forms and usually can be found in vegetarian or kosher varieties to suit special needs. Many experts also feel that natural substances are closer to “food” and are better absorbed and more bioavailable in the body. Women who choose natural supplements should be sure to get their healthcare provider’s approval first.
Keep in mind, though, taking a prenatal vitamin doesn’t mean that the diet should be neglected. A healthy pregnant woman usually needs an extra 200–300 calories per day, and these foods should be carefully selected. Pregnant women should eat a nutritious, low-fat, balanced diet with plenty of protein, calcium, fruits/vegetables and omegas. Avoiding caffeine and alcohol is a necessity, and sugary foods should be eaten in moderation to avoid gestational diabetes.
What’s in a Prenatal Supplement?
Folic acid can decrease the chance of neural tube birth defects that occur in the brain and spinal cord (2). A baby with spina bifida, the most pervasive neural tube defect, is born with a spine that is unconnected. This condition causes exposed and damaged nerves, leaving the child with a certain degree of paralysis, unrestraint and possible mental retardation. Since neural tube defects occur in the first 28 days after conception, studies have proven that taking larger doses (up to 4,000 mcg) at least a month ahead and during the first trimester may produce more favorable outcomes (2). Recent studies show that taking vitamin B12 also is helpful for preventing this and other birth defects.
Iron provides an oxygen supply for both the mother’s and baby’s blood and helps prevent anemia. But note that the body’s need for iron increases significantly during pregnancy, making extra supplementation important (3). Iron is a multifaceted mineral; it makes up a crucial part of hemoglobin, helps muscles function properly and increases the body’s susceptibility to disease and stress. As an added bonus, it also helps with symptoms such as depression, irritability, weakness and weariness (3).
Calcium consumption may prevent a mother from losing bone density, since the fetus also uses this mineral for its own bone growth (2, 4). Not taking enough calcium leaves the baby with no other option but to steal the mineral from its mother’s bones, which in turn decreases bone mass and places the mom-to-be at risk for osteoporosis. Calcium also enables the blood to clot normally, aids in muscle and nervous system function and helps the heart to maintain proper function. Vitamin D is important for proper calcium absorption.
Omega-3 fatty acids are greatly needed by pregnant women, but aren’t manufactured naturally by the body. In fact, omega-3 fatty acids must be obtained from food intake or from supplements. To that end, it is found in fatty fish such as halibut, salmon, tuna and other marine life such as algae and krill (shrimplike crustaceans) (5). Since it’s recommended that pregnant women stay clear of fish with high levels of mercury and PCB, taking a high-quality, purified fish oil supplement may be the way to go. Much research confirms that taking fish oil supports a baby’s proper brain development, communication skills and eye development.
After Baby’s Birth
Vitamin D consumption while breastfeeding is recommended because it supports infants’ bone development and immune systems (6). Although rare, rickets (soft and brittle bones) may result from vitamin D deficiency. Other important nutrients for new moms include calcium, omega-3s and probiotics. WF
1. American Pregnancy Association, www.americanpregnancy.org/pregnancyhealth/prenatalvitamins.html, accessed May 18, 2009.
2. WebMD, “Pregnancy and Prenatal Vitamins,” www.webmd.com/baby/guide/prenatal-vitamins, accessed May 18, 2009.
3. Cleveland Clinic, “Increasing Iron in Your Diet During Pregnancy,” http://my.clevelandclinic.org/healthy_living/pregnancy/hic_increasing_iron_in_your_diet_during_pregnancy.aspx, accessed May 18, 2009.
4. Cleveland Clinic, “Increasing Calcium in Your Diet During Pregnancy,” http://my.clevelandclinic.org/healthy_living/pregnancy/hic_increasing_calcium_in_your_diet_during_pregnancy.aspx, accessed May 18, 2009.
5. University of Maryland Medical Center, “Omega-3 Fatty Acids,” www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/omega-3-000316.htm, accessed May 20, 2009.
6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Vitamin D Supplementation,” www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/recommendations/vitamin_D.htm, accessed May 20, 2009.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, July 2009