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The Pros and Cons of Taking Prenatal Vitamins When You're Not Pregnant
Don't believe the old wives' tales about taking prenatal vitamins when you're not expecting.
There's quite an allure, and a slew of old wives' tales, attached to prenatal vitamins. Many women have come to believe that taking them, pregnant or not, will help their hair and nails grow faster, and even give them an extra dose of healthy and necessary nutrients. But the truth is far more complicated. Woman's Day spoke with medical experts to learn more about the pros and cons of taking prenatal vitamins when you're not expecting.
What are prenatal vitamins?
So, what exactly are prenatal vitamins? “The dosages of vitamins and minerals in prenatal vitamins are the same ones that can be found in regular multivitamins, but the dosages are higher because the body requirements are higher during pregnancy,” Dr. Lucky Sekhon, reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist at Reproductive Medicine Associates of NY, tells Woman's Day. "They are geared towards optimizing fetal growth and development. The main difference is that you’re given extra folic acid, typically about 400mcg a day. Prenatal vitamins should ideally be taken three months before becoming pregnant, but even taking them just one month before can greatly reduce risks of neural tube defects and spinal cord issues, such as spina bifida."
What do prenatal vitamins contain?
All prenatal vitamins contain different combinations of micronutrients that are aimed to ensure a pregnant person and their baby get all the vitamins and minerals they need. However, pregnant people aren't the only people who can take prenatals. They're also recommended for people who are trying to get pregnant or are breast feeding. Every person is different, and that's why finding a specific prenatal vitamin that works for you is key.
Dr. Banafsheh Bayati, MD, OB/GYN, FACOG is co-founder of Perelel Medical, the first & only OB/GYN-founded vitamin brand. Dr. Bayati explains that Perelel formulates prenatals that change with a woman's needs from conception and through each trimester of pregnancy and post-partum.
"We identified the specific micronutrients and their appropriate RDA (recommended dietary allowances) for women in the non-pregnant, pregnant, and lactation stages determined by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), The RDA for many micronutrients including all the B vitamins, iron, vitamin D, zinc and selenium increase during pregnancy," Dr. Bayati says. "Thus the IOM recommends a daily prenatal multivitamin before conception and during pregnancy. This is specifically to ensure adequate folate for rapid cell growth needed for fetal and placental development as well as increased need for iron supplementation."
What is the difference between prenatal vitamins and regular vitamins?
Though prenatal vitamins and regular vitamins work the same way – to provide your body with micronutrients that it may be lacking — there are some key differences between the two, specifically when it comes to ingredients. For example, as an article on Mom.com explains, there is a specific amount of folic acid and iron that pregnant people are supposed to have in their diet. A prenatal vitamin ensures that those exact levels are met, whereas a regular multivitamin might have some amount of folic acid or iron, but necessarily enough to meet the threshold recommended for pregnant people.
As always, it's important that you consult a health care provider or family physician prior to taking any over-the-counter medication or starting a vitamin regimen. After all, what works for one body does not work for all. But if you do have lingering questions about taking prenatal vitamins when you're not pregnant, here's what you need to know:
Prenatal vitamins may help your skin and nails, but it’s likely that any type of vitamin with the same nutrients would be just as beneficial.
“It’s true that things in prenatal vitamins, like vitamin B and biotin, are good for the skin and nails. But it’s not necessarily the main reason why there’s hair and nail growth,” Sekhon explains. “The reason why people always talk about the benefits of prenatal vitamins is a misconception. People draw a lot of associations with prenatal vitamins, such as that ‘pregnancy glow’, and hair becoming thicker. Instead of the vitamins, a lot of this is attributable to the hormonal changes of pregnancy itself.”
“If you’re planning on having children any time in the future, even in the next 5-10 years, there’s a benefit to taking prenatal vitamins," Ryann Kipping, RDN, CLEC, and owner/founder of The Prenatal Nutritionist, tells Woman's Day. "You’re giving your body the nutrients it needs to get ready. Ideally, a woman’s reproductive years are when she’s working on reaching optimal health. It’s best to go into pregnancy without any nutrient deficiencies."
Kipping says that more than 90 percent of women aren’t meeting their choline needs, and 50 percent are critically deficient in vitamin D. Since fetal organs start to develop in the first couple months of pregnancy, often before some women even realize they’re pregnant, it’s important to give your body the nutrition it needs ahead of time.
“The recommendation is to continue taking prenatal vitamins after you have a baby, especially throughout the first year and if you’re breastfeeding,” Sekhon explains. Your energy requirements are incredibly high when you’re feeding a newborn (and often not getting an adequate amount of sleep), so it’s important to get all the nutrients you can, when you can.
If you’re taking prenatal vitamins to boost hair growth, you’re likely going to be disappointed. "While prenatal vitamins get a lot of credit for a woman's thick pregnancy hair, these changes are actually due to hormonal differences that cause hair and nails to grow faster and make hair less likely to fall out," Megan Casper, M.S., RDN, owner of Megan Casper Nutrition and writer for Nourished Bite, tells Woman's Day. "This is also why, once hormones start to go back to normal, women tend to shed their glorious pregnancy mane a few months after having their baby, even though many women continue to take prenatals while nursing."
It's important to consider the amount of vitamins in prenatals, and whether or not your body actually needs them. Because if it doesn't, the extra doses of nutrients could actually do more harm than good.
"The relationship between vitamin B12 and vitamin B9, folate, is interesting,” Kipping explains. “If your levels of B12 are adequate, supplementing with folate is a good thing. However, if you have a B12 deficiency, supplementing with folate while leaving your B12 levels untouched may actually cause a type of anemia known as megaloblastic anemia.”
Note that the odds of this are relatively rare, and this would only affect an individual who was B12 deficient and taking a prenatal vitamin with no B12 but with high amounts of folate.
Some prenatal vitamins are very large, and certain people may have issues swallowing them, Sekhon says. “ It’s undue discomfort since they could probably just be taking a smaller, normal multivitamin," she adds. "Some people also complain about constipation due to higher levels of iron than what’s needed.”
If you’re breastfeeding or currently trying to get pregnant, taking a prenatal vitamin is a good idea. However, if you're not pregnant and not planning to become pregnant, high levels of certain nutrients over a long period of time may actually be more harmful than helpful, according to the Mayo Clinic.
As Dr. Bayati explains, there are also a few other cases in which it's not advisable to take prenatals: "Occasionally with certain medications, all prenatals and multivitamins need to be discontinued, for example if on chemotherapy. Most prenatals and multivitamins contain omega supplementation. These again may need to be stopped prior to surgery or with bleeding during pregnancy or with excessive bleeding with menstruation," Dr. Bayati explains.
"Most importantly, some vitamins have excessive amounts of micronutrients that may cause more harm than benefit, [for example] excessive biotin supplementation. Thus, it is important to know what you are taking and find a prenatal that is appropriate for you. At Perelel we take all of this into consideration when formulating our stage-specific supplements."