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Prenatal Supplements – Who Should Take Them?

Posted on 13 February 2024

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Prenatal supplements are vitamin and mineral-containing products specifically designed for pregnant women to ensure they get the necessary nutrients for their health and the baby’s development. The benefits of these products are well established, but who exactly should be taking them?

Disclaimer: Regardless of what you read online or elsewhere, it’s important to consult a healthcare provider before taking any vitamins, supplements or herbs during pregnancy.

What Are They?

Prenatal supplements are dietary supplements recommended for pregnant women. Multiple prenatal supplements are often combined into a single pill. The two most commonly recommended prenatal supplements are folic acid and vitamin D. Folic acid is important for preventing birth defects, such as neural tube defects, while vitamin D is essential for skeletal development and growth in general. These supplements are typically recommended to be taken before and during pregnancy to support the mother and baby’s health. Many prenatal supplement products also contain other vitamins, as well as omega-3 fatty acids and minerals like calcium and iron.

How Do They Work?

In general, prenatal supplements work by preventing the nutrient deficiencies that are more likely to occur during pregnancy, since the mother requires additional nutrients to support the baby’s development. Ensuring such deficiencies do not occur benefits both the mother and the baby, supports development and reduces the risk of pregnancy complications and birth defects.

What Does The Research Say?

The benefits of prenatal supplements are well established by scientific research and are endorsed by public health services like the NHS. However, not all prenatal supplement products are the same in terms of contents and dose. A recent study found that in the United States, very few prenatal products actually provided the necessary doses of all supplements recommended during pregnancy. It may therefore be worth consulting healthcare professionals and reputable sources (such as the websites of public health services) to check that a product you are buying meets the recommended doses.

Who Should Take Prenatal Supplements?

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It is generally recommended that women start taking prenatal supplements before they conceive. This is because some supplements, especially folic acid, affect the very early stages of the baby’s development when the mother may not know she is pregnant. Otherwise, it’s generally OK to continue taking prenatal supplements throughout pregnancy. However, it’s important to make sure that you don’t exceed the recommended dose of any supplement after factoring in dietary sources, as some vitamins and minerals can harm the baby when taken in excess. One to look out for is vitamin A. While it is important to get enough vitamin A during pregnancy, this can be obtained from a balanced diet. Many sources including the NHS actually tell people to avoid taking any supplemental vitamin A during pregnancy due to the risk of toxicity.

Many wonder if there are any benefits to taking prenatal supplements outside of pregnancy, such as during breastfeeding or after the menopause. In these circumstances, there may be some benefits due to specific supplements that happen to be present in prenatal products. For example, postmenopausal women may benefit from many prenatal supplements including vitamin D and calcium. However, dietary requirements for iron, another prenatal supplement, decrease after the menopause, and iron supplementation is not recommended for postmenopausal women. There’s therefore no real reason to take prenatal supplement products outside of pregnancy, as you may end up taking supplements you don’t need. You are better off taking your individual circumstances and dietary habits into consideration when deciding which specific supplements may benefit you. It’s also preferable to meet the recommended intake of a nutrient through your diet before turning to dietary supplements.

The Take Home Message

Prenatal supplements are widely recommended before and during pregnancy, but be sure to consult with a healthcare professional before taking them, and make sure that recommended doses are respected. Outside of pregnancy, there’s not much reason to take prenatal supplement products, though specific prenatal supplements may also be beneficial in other contexts.

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    Title image by Fé Ngô, Upslash

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