Go to the supplements aisle and you’ll see them: shelves and shelves of prenatal vitamins and minerals, and they’re all supposed to be essential for a healthy baby. It’s enough to drive any woman crazy (especially if you’re already preggers).The question isn’t whether or not you should be taking prenatal supplements.
The science is pretty clear – studies have found that whether you’re trying to conceive or are already expecting a baby, prenatal supplements are pretty essential. When you’re trying to create another human being, the nutrients you’re currently taking in through food and drink are often not enough.
The question is: which supplements actually work and which ones harm your body more than help it?
What Nutrients Do I Need?
Some nutrients are available in more than one chemical form, but each form is different in terms of how easily they are absorbed by your body. Here are a couple of the most common nutrients and their best chemical forms.
1. Folic acid & folate (aka vitamin B9).
Taking the right form of B9 is critical for conception and pregnancy. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, which is naturally found in whole foods. Folic acid is cheaper to produce than folate, which is why you will find it in most supplements. The problem with folic acid is that it is metabolized in the body very slowly and therefore significant quantities of unprocessed folic acid could accumulate in the body. It is now well recognized that unprocessed folic acid is associated with cancer. Folate is much easier and more efficiently absorbed than folic acid, so choosing a prenatal with folate, rather than folic acid is ideal.
About 30% of the population also carry certain genetic mutations (MTHFR) which affect the way you metabolize folic acid and folate. If you happen to carry this mutation, you need to look for a supplement containing methyl-folate, which will be easier for your body to absorb, rather than folic acid or folate.
Because unprocessed folic acid is bad for your body, you should also ditch folic-acid fortified processed foods, including certain brans of cereal, milk, and orange juice.
2. Vitamin B12 or cobalamin.
This is an absolutely fundamental prenatal vitamin for pregnancy, conception and general health. The trio B12 – B6 – folate (along with the minerals – magnesium, zinc and selenium) is essential for protein metabolism. Most prenatals contain cyano-cobalamin, which is basically vitamin B12 attached to a molecule of cyanide, an infamous poison. This combo may look twisted, but is cheaper for supplement companies.
Companies claim that liver enzymes break down and neutralize the cyanide before any harm is done. While this is true, I don’t see the point in eating poisons that can be easily avoided.
The optimal form of B12 is called methyl-cobalamine. That is a really smart alternative because we actually get B12 plus a valuable methyl group, which our body can further use in the cells.
3. Vitamin D
Although vitamin D is rightfully considered the guardian angel of our body, research shows that women trying to conceive and expecting mothers are commonly deficient in it. The right vitamin D supplement will help you build healthy bones, metabolize calcium, and maintain a strong immune system. Vitamin D supplements can come in two forms: vitamin D2 (ergochalciferol) and vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol).
We want and need D3 because the body can use it easier and better. D3 is approximately 87 percent more potent in raising and maintaining vitamin D concentrations and produces 2- to 3-fold greater storage of vitamin D than does D2. Many products fortified with vitamin D, often contain the less-than-ideal D2 form. So, if you are counting on such products to top up your daily vitamin D dose, make sure that you are getting D3 fortified ones.
If you are lucky and live in a sunny place, a short (15-20 minutes) sunbath per day, without wearing sunscreen, will give you the daily shot of vitamin D you need. If you are deficient in vitamin D, you need higher amounts to fill up your storage first, preferably under the supervision of a functional medicine doctor.
4. Vitamin K
This underestimated vitamin was originally thought to “simply” regulate blood clotting; now we know that it is also fundamental for calcium metabolism, formation of strong bones, brain development and cardiovascular health. Babies need so much vitamin K that a small dose of vitamin K is administered to newborn babies, preferably within one hour after birth.
In order to secure the above health benefits for you and your baby, it is important to take the right form of vitamin K, which is K2 vitamin, not the popular K1 type. Vitamin K2 comes in slightly different chemical forms; the most potent and well-researched are MK-7 and MK-4, which are found in traditional fermented foods (i.e. natto) and animal products from exclusively pastured animals (i.e. raw butter) respectively. Recent research shows that only vitamin K2 intake is associated with long-term health benefits; therefore it is important to look for a prenatal that offers specifically this type of vitamin K.
5. Vitamin E
Vitamin E is actually a whole family of chemically related molecules. Naturally occurring vitamin E exists in eight chemical forms (alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-tocopherol and alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-tocotrienol) but only Alpha- (or α-) tocopherol is the only form that is recognized to meet human requirements.
You need to make sure that your prenatal vitamins contains specifically alpha tocopherol, either isolated from natural non-GMO sources (i.e. non-GMO soy) or as part of a mixture of other natural forms of vitamin E. What you should be acutely aware of is that synthetic forms of vitamin E are associated with cancer and cardiovascular disease (among other health problems) and therefore it is critical to avoid any supplement containing them. The difference between synthetic and natural vitamin E is denoted by the addition of the letter -dl- in front of the vitamin name. The letter -d- is often (but not always) added in front of the name of the natural vitamin E as well. So, dl-alpha tocopherol is the synthetic, petrochemically-derived (and disease-promoting) form of the natural and healthy d-alpha tocopherol.
A quality prenatal will provide decent quantities of all the essential minerals and in an easily bioavailable form. There is no point in taking a mineral supplement if your body cannot absorb it or use it properly. Minerals are often bound to carrier molecules, such as amino acids, in order to increase absorption. The table below lists the best forms of each mineral in decreasing order of their bioavailability. For example, calcium ascorbate is more bioavailable than calcium citrate, which in turn is easier bioavailable than calcium gluconate, and so on.
Tips for Getting The Most Out of Your Prenatal Supplement
Once you have your good quality prenatal, there are a lot of things you can do to ensure that you get the most out of it. Here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Avoid caffeine, cigarettes and alcohol:
Tea, coffee, alcohol and smoking can hinder absorption of all the good stuff you give to your body. I doubt that many women will smoke or drink alcohol while trying to conceive and especially if they are already expecting a baby, but many women continue to drink tea and coffee. So make sure you have your prenatal at least 3-4 hours away from your tea and/or coffee.
2. Take your supplement with small amounts of healthy fats:
This is important to help your gut absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, K, D, E). Good options are virgin coconut and olive oil and organic butter from exclusively grass-fed animals.
3. Make sure you’ve got enough stomach acid:
Absorption of minerals depends on adequate stomach acid, so if you have been struggling with digestion problems, now is the time to seek help and resolve them for good. For example, heartburn is a clinical indication of insufficient stomach acid (unlike the sensation of excessive acid causing the discomfort), which could reduce the absorption of nutrients from the gut.
4. Make sure you have enough minerals:
Many minerals are necessary for the absorption of vitamins and other minerals, so ensuring efficient mineral absorption doubles or triples up in nutritional benefits. A good example of this co-dependency of nutrients is the trio magnesium, vitamin D and calcium; each nutrient is necessary for the absorption of the next one. Women with low magnesium intake can minimally absorb vitamin D, which in turn results in low calcium absorption. Chain-reactions like that can only compromise your fertility and baby´s health, but thankfully are easily resolved.
So, here is the most comprehensive guide to prenatal supplements! And to wrap it up and make it official, the table below gives you all the info about nutrient dosage – aka how much you need from each one. You should know that these values are not the RDAs (Recommended daily allowance), which only serve to prevent disease, but do not necessarily guarantee health.
The recommended nutrient doses in the following table aim to provide optimal health, which is what you need for restoring your fertility and giving the best start to your baby.
Daily Optimal Dose
Comments – Insights
|Vitamin A||up to 3,000 mcg (10,000 IU)||Major antioxidant and immune system regulator|
|Vitamin B1||20-25 mg|
|Vitamin B2||20-25 mg|
|Vitamin B3||20-25 mg||Important for lowering the risk of gestational diabetes – helps regulate blood glucose, balance energy levels, regulate hunger and reduce pregnancy cravings|
|Vitamin B5||20-25 mg|
|Vitamin B6||50 mg||Essential for protein metabolism|
|Folate or vitamin B9||600 mg *See article for optimal forms*||Essential for protein metabolism|
|Vitamin B12||50 mg *See article for optimal forms*||Essential for protein metabolism|
|Vitamin C||1,500 – 2,000 mg||Major antioxidant, strengthens the immune system, helps prevent stretch marks|
|Vitamin D3||60 mcg – especially if you are pregnant in winter. Your diet should provide at least another 60mcg *See article for optimal forms*||Key for bone development, calcium metabolism and a strong immune system. Dark coloured people and vegetarians have higher risk for vitamin D deficiency|
|Vitamin E||250 mcg (380 IU) – Your diet should provide at least 14 mcg (20 IU) more *See article for optimal forms*||Essential antioxidant – protects DNA from oxidative damage|
|Vitamin K||*See article for optimal forms*||Important for blood clotting, bone development and calcium metabolism|
|Calcium||1,200 mg *See article for optimal forms*||Vital for bones, healthy heart and nervous system|
|Chromium||20 mcg – your diet should provide at least 30 mcg more *See article for optimal forms*||Works with vitamin B3 to balance energy levels, regulate hunger and reduce cravings|
|Iron||25 mg *See article for optimal forms*||Important for healthy blood (high hemoglobin content= more oxygen to your tissues) and energy levels|
|Magnesium||300 mcg – Your diet should provide at least 300 mcg more *See article for optimal forms*||Works with calcium and vitamin D3 to provide strong bones and optimal calcium metabolism. Also helps relax muscles and relieves constipation|
|Manganesium||2 mg – Your diet should provide 3 mg more. *See article for optimal forms*||Keeps cartilage, tendons, bones and nerves healthy|
|Selenium||40 mcg – Your diet shoudl provide 20-25 mcg *See article for optimal forms*||Essential antioxidant and important for a strong immune system|
|Zinc||20 mg *See article for optimal forms*||Essential for fertility, hormone balance and baby growth|