YoIf there is an agreed “must” during pregnancy, it could be that taking prenatal supplements is essential. They provide mother and baby with all the necessary nutrients and vitamins to help support a healthy pregnancy, reducing the risk of preterm birth, preeclampsia, low birth weight, and more.
But have you ever considered taking prenatals when you are No pregnant? There are plenty of incentives like healthy hair and skin, fertility benefits, and just a general vitamin and mineral boost. Since they are designed specifically for pregnancy, you may be curious as to whether they are safe vitamins or the best ones for you. So, we spoke to three reproductive health experts about their thoughts and to learn about the potential benefits and risks of taking prenatal vitamins when you’re not pregnant.
Prenatal vitamins versus regular vitamins
You won’t find many differences between the ingredient lists of prenatal vitamins and women’s multivitamins. Both typically contain nutrients such as calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc, and vitamins A, B, C, D, and E. What you’ll see are different amounts of these ingredients.
Pregnancy requires higher levels of nutrients such as folic acid and iron to help reduce the risk of maternal anemia and iron deficiency. OB/GYN Jessica Shepherd, MD, says what makes prenatals different is that they help provide the right amount of these daily nutrients for a healthy pregnancy, while some multivitamins may have a little bit of folic acid or iron, but not necessarily enough to meet the recommended dose for pregnant people.
With that added iron and folate (and vitamin D), though, prenatal supplements are something most menstruating people would benefit from taking as their daily multivitamin, says naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist Amanda Frick, ND, LAc, vice president of medical affairs at online health platform Thorne. “The main reason for this is that prenatal supplements usually contain iron, whereas not all multivitamin or mineral supplements do,” she says. “Since a woman loses iron monthly during her menstrual cycle, taking a prenatal supplement helps replenish the iron we need for healthy red blood cells and to feel vibrant. Many women also notice that their hair and nails are stronger when they take 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 keep in mind: Calcium can be limited or left out of a prenatal vitamin because it interferes with iron absorption.
Prenatals and their benefits of folic acid
Almost anyone can benefit from taking a multivitamin, but if you want to switch to a prenatal, there’s little risk in doing so. Dr. Frick says this is an especially good idea if you plan to get pregnant in the near future.
“Prenatal supplements have nutrients that are essential for 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 neurodevelopment, it is very important to consume enough folate before becoming pregnant to ensure healthy neurodevelopment.”
If you need extra motivation, consider the potential impact on your fertility: A 2016 study found that women who used folic acid were 15% more likely to get pregnant within 12 cycles, and folic acid increased the chances of pregnancy by 36% among women on short cycles (less than 27 days).
Folic acid also has other benefits beyond pregnancy. It has also been shown to prevent stroke and heart disease: Some studies show that folic acid supplementation can lead to a four percent reduction in the overall risk of heart disease and a 10 percent reduction in the risk of stroke. Folic acid can also stimulate hair growth or help with hair loss and thinning, and is even recommended in older people to prevent memory impairment.
Should I take prenatals while breastfeeding?
The short answer is yes. Part of any postpartum care plan should include nourishing your body with nutrient-dense foods and supplementing with a prenatal while breastfeeding to ensure you get the proper nutrition you need to repair and recover from the birth experience, and that the correct nutrients are supplied for the baby through your breast milk.
However, Mary Jacobson, MD, medical director of the Hello Alpha women’s health platform and a board-certified OB/GYN, says that prenatal vitamins during lactation should be individualized: Breastfeeding women should be evaluated by a doctor regarding their diet and vitamin supplements to confirm that they meet the recommended daily allowances of essential nutrients and vitamins.
It’s also important to be consistent with the nutrients and vitamins your body takes in during pregnancy and soon after. Making abrupt changes or changes to your daily vitamin intake could cause problems or a nutrient imbalance.
Cases in which prenatals are not recommended
The most important reason to avoid using a prenatal supplement like your daily multivitamin or mineral supplement would be if you have problems with iron overload, or if your doctor has told you to avoid an iron supplement, says Dr. Frick. If this is the case, it would be in your best interest to opt for a daily multivitamin or mineral supplement without iron (or choose to supplement with specific nutrients for your individual health goals).
Like any supplement, you should discuss prenatals with your doctor before taking them to ensure you choose the right one for the best benefits. “Due to the iron levels in the prenatal vitamin, it can lead to constipation, as well as stomach cramps, upset stomach, and bowel changes,” says Dr. Shepherd. He adds that it’s also important to make sure prenatals don’t interfere with any medications you’re taking. For example, some heart and blood pressure medications can interact with prenatal vitamins, so be sure to review medication lists with your OB/GYN.
Another common side effect is nausea, along with upset stomach or diarrhea. This can be fixed by taking prenatal vitamins with food and also using ginger before taking the prenatal vitamins. And if you have trouble swallowing pills, consider prenatal vitamin gummies (although keep in mind that most gummies come without iron, so be sure to check the ingredients).