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Do Prenatal Vitamins Deliver Benefits, Even When Not Pregnant? An RD Explains

July 29, 2022
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There's so much information available at our fingertips 24/7—to the point that making a decision can feel like an oversize task to complete. A quick internet search often prompts more questions than when you started your query, leading you to ask friends, family, and care providers for input…and still leaving you right back where you started, unsure of what to do.

Like many nutrition decisions, seeking out a prenatal vitamin is one of these overwhelming decisions. Interestingly, more and more people are looking into taking a prenatal vitamin when they aren't pregnant—but is that a safe option? And are there any truly significant health benefits that can come from taking a prenatal vitamin if you aren't expecting?

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What are prenatal vitamins?

The first thought that likely comes to mind when you think of a prenatal vitamin is that it's a supplement a person takes when they're planning to try to become pregnant or when they're already pregnant.

Prenatal vitamins were originally designed to meet the unique needs of women who are planning to become or are already pregnant. They typically have at least the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for folic acid (vitamin B9) or its naturally occurring form, folate, which helps promote a healthy central nervous system in a developing fetus, among other things.*

Within a comprehensive multivitamin/mineral, a prenatal supplement should also supply specific amounts of other nutrients known to support a healthy pregnancy (e.g., iron, calcium, vitamin D3, choline, etc.) when compared to other (non-prenatal) types of multivitamins out there.*

Including the omega-3 DHA in the prenatal multi itself or alongside it (e.g., in a bundle situation) is also ideal for the most holistic reproductive health support, for both mom and baby.*

This complete array of essential vitamins, minerals, and even other nutrients like DHA (at prenatal-specific levels) are what should typify a prenatal multi. "Should" being the operative word. "This expectation for completeness you should have in a prenatal multi is one of the reasons a prenatal gummy is a genuinely bad idea," explains nutrition scientist Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN.

"Sugars, flavors, colorants, and other additives aside, prenatal gummies are truly limited and lacking in their vitamin and mineral profile when it comes to prenatal essentials," Ferira shares. "Don't believe me? Turn over your prenatal gummy label and tell me how much iron, choline, calcium, and DHA you see," she adds. (Spoiler alert: Not much or none is the answer).

What's the difference between prenatal vitamins and multivitamins?

Prenatal vitamins were first created in the 1990s to deliver adequate amounts of key nutrients correlated with suboptimal pregnancy outcomes in order to support healthy fetal development.

When deciding between a prenatal vitamin and a "regular" (non-prenatal) multivitamin, it's important to note a few key nutrients (and dosages) that distinguish thoughtfully formulated prenatal vitamins from a multi designed for non-perinatal life stages:

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Iron

Iron is an essential mineral necessary to create new blood cells in the body.* Per prenatal nutrition specialist Amy Burkholder, CNS, LDN, "Women's blood volume increases about 50% during pregnancy, so [women's iron] needs also increase 50%." 

Having adequate intake and stores of iron is critical for a healthy mother and baby throughout pregnancy. Iron comes from both animal and plant-based foods in the diet, but iron found in animal sources (heme iron) is more readily absorbed in the human body.

According to Burkholder, "Prenatal multivitamins have higher amounts of iron (pregnant women need 27 milligrams daily, while nonpregnant, premenopausal women need 18 milligrams), and excess iron can warrant toxicity concerns [to some people]."

Burkholder adds, "Postpartum women whose menses have not yet resumed need even less—about 9 milligrams per day." That lower daily iron need is similar in magnitude to what postmenopausal (non-menstruating) and adult men require (i.e., 8 milligrams daily).

"Yes, older adults and men have daily iron needs, too, even though many age- and gender-focused multivitamin formulas tend to ignore that, which is a real nutritional disservice," adds Ferira.

Folate

Folate, aka vitamin B9, is an essential vitamin that's critical for fetal development (particularly, the central nervous system)—especially during the first few weeks of pregnancy.* 

"Paying attention to daily folate needs is important for everyone, including pregnant women, but in fact, some of the most folate-critical stages of pregnancy are when many women don't know they're pregnant yet, which obviously underscores the importance of being nutritionally ready and replete each and every day," warns Ferira.

According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology1, people with a uterus who plan to conceive or are already pregnant should consume at least 600 micrograms of folate (naturally occurring) or folic acid (synthetic) from dietary intake or supplements, starting at least one month prior to conception. 

Burkholder also notes that synthetic folic acid "isn't [always] well metabolized once it's in the blood, especially for anyone with an MTHFR gene variant" and recommends looking to whole-food sources of folate (such as leafy greens) or supplemental methylfolate (i.e., 5-MTHF, the fully bioactive form of this B vitamin)—which can be more easily metabolized in the body.*

Some individuals may need higher levels or different versions of folate (for example, the bioactive methylfolate mentioned above, over regular folic acid), so it's always best to consult a care provider that knows your full health history and goals. 

Prenatal vitamins and multivitamins alike will often deliver 400 to 1,000 micrograms of dietary folate equivalents (DFE), but others will have even greater amounts and the supplements should be used under the care of a health care provider. Note: Many conventional prenatal vitamins and single-ingredient folic acid supplements can be lackluster and contain suboptimal forms of folate (and other nutrients). Always ask questions, do your research, and trust your intuition.

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Calcium

This critical macromineral aids fetal development by helping build bones and teeth, and also helps maintain maternal bone density.* Calcium is also important for nerve conduction, muscle movement, normal circulation, and hormone circulation.*

"Calcium is a massively important mineral that's regularly underconsumed in America, and guess where a developing fetus sources its calcium from if the pregnant mom is not taking in enough calcium daily? Baby gets it from mom's bones. While it's thrifty, it's not a good thing obviously," warns Ferira. In other words, daily calcium intake should be top priority from diet and supplement sources during pregnancy.

While you won't find high amounts of calcium (like 500 milligrams plus) in prenatal vitamins typically. This is less because of its potential to compete with iron absorption (again, at very high calcium levels2) and more because "calcium is a genuinely bulky mineral that requires a lot of 'real estate' in the prenatal," explains Ferira. "You would be looking at a whole lot of capsules or tablets if the prenatal formula includes 300 milligrams or more of calcium, along with all the other prenatal essentials."

If you've been told to increase your calcium intake, it's best to take a food-first approach, then take the appropriate amount of supplementation for your unique nutritional needs, to "mind those gaps," as Ferira puts it. Supplemental calcium is best taken with food and away from other supplements to avoid stomach upset and promote proper absorption.

Ferira recommends spacing any stand-alone calcium supplements away from your prenatal multi (or any multivitamin, for that matter) to optimize its absorption. She also shares that "morning time can be rough during pregnancy, but minerals can be tough on the tummy in the a.m. for nonpregnant folks, too, so listen to your gut (literally) and personalize your supplement timing approach."

While adolescents between the ages of 9 and 18 need 1,300 milligrams of calcium per day, adult women and men ages 19 to 50 require 1,000 milligrams per day from diet and supplements combined, regardless of whether they are pregnant, lactating, or neither. 

To put this daily need into perspective so you can plan accordingly, "one serving of dairy, like a serving of plain Greek yogurt3 or a cup of milk4, delivers about 200 to 300 milligrams of calcium, respectively," notes Ferira. "And before you ask about greens, yes the plant kingdom offers calcium, too, but in way smaller doses. A whole cup of chopped broccoli5 or kale6 will give you about 50 milligrams of calcium," she adds.

You may still be wondering if prenatal vitamins are appropriate if pregnancy is not in your near future. If you're hoping to boost your energy or strengthen and shine up your locks, keep reading.

Choline 

According to a 2019 scientific review from BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, choline is a "brain-building" nutrient important for neurotransmitter synthesis, methylation reactions, and normal metabolism.* The importance of this nutrient has only recently become realized, and while a quality prenatal vitamin should ideally deliver some choline, you'll want to leverage your diet to achieve the high daily needs required by this nutrient.

People planning to conceive should consume a diet rich in eggs, meat, poultry, fish, cruciferous vegetables, and dairy and also consider supplementing with extra choline to ensure they reach at least 450 milligrams per day. 

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Is it safe to take prenatal vitamins when you're not pregnant?

While prenatal vitamins are helpful to fill nutrient gaps and bump up intake of key nutrients to prepare for or actively support a healthy pregnancy, the higher amounts of some nutrients may make them a less than ideal option for certain individuals to take routinely. 

Benefits of taking prenatal vitamins when you're not pregnant.

Prenatal vitamins can be a great way to prepare and nutritionally support the body to safely grow another human. For women hoping to conceive, adequate dietary and/or supplemental folate can help promote a healthy pregnancy—especially in the first few weeks of a fetal development, as the need for this essential B vitamin is most critical soon after implantation.* 

Armed with this knowledge, it's absolutely a good idea to take a prenatal vitamin when you're not pregnant if your goal is to conceive. However, it's important to note that a comprehensive, non-prenatal multivitamin with a healthy dose of bioavailable folate can also achieve the same end goal.

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Side effects of taking prenatal vitamins when you're not pregnant.

It's hard to imagine a prenatal vitamin without some iron. For women already consuming 27 milligrams of iron from their diet, they may already have very healthy iron levels and do not require extra iron. Depending on the form of the iron, supplemental iron can cause gastrointestinal issues in some and unnecessary iron stores in others. It's always best to partner with a health care provider and have iron levels tested to determine if iron support is needed.

If a person is not planning to conceive but wants to play it safe and supplement with a form of folate, I recommend a high-quality prenatal vitamin or multivitamin with at least 400 micrograms of methylfolate (the form with the highest bioavailability), plus all the other health-supportive nutrients to help them feel their best. 

Prenatal vitamin alternatives for hair and nails.

In the past, taking prenatal vitamins to support healthy hair, skin and nails has become popular, but is it really the best option? In my professional opinion, taking prenatal vitamins for hair growth and strong nails is not the optimal choice. That said, knowing which ingredients to look for can make finding an alternative easier.

Feria adds that "oftentimes the purported beauty benefits of a prenatal multi are actually driven by the fact that the person needed daily nutrition support for key vitamins and minerals, and therefore, the prenatal filled some gaps. A non-prenatal multi could achieve the same goal."

In addition to a well-rounded diet with adequate protein and healthy fat intake, supplementing with extra biotin (vitamin B7), silica, and vitamins in the antioxidant family (think vitamins A, C, K, and B2—aka riboflavin) are good places to start if you're looking for holistic beauty benefits.* A high-quality vegan supplement like mbg's ultimate multivitamin+ (which has all of these nutrients, plus 17 additional vitamins, minerals, and botanicals) is a fantastic option for women and men.

As a registered dietitian, I would be remiss if I didn't also note that it's not just the food and supplements that you put into your body but how effectively they're digested and assimilated as well—so proper digestive function is also key! Therefore, I always emphasize the gut as ground zero—supporting a healthy gut promotes health from the inside out.

In that vein, a high-quality collagen peptide powder is another great addition to your daily routine to support skin elasticity and moisturization, alongside the added benefit of promoting healthy intestinal lining integrity and function.* These powders mix in great with liquids (like coffee and smoothies), as well as oatmeal and baked goods. Ferira adds that, "collagen is your body's most abundant protein. It's simply that whole-body essential."

If you're looking to truly support strong, healthy hair, skin, and nails, mbg's beauty & collagen+ features grass-fed, pasture-raised bovine collagen peptides, plus an array of other beauty- and gut-supporting ingredients—like glutamine, biotin, vitamins C and E, and turmeric plus broccoli seed extracts.*

The takeaway.

Ultimately, deciding which supplements are right for you is a nuanced and personalized approach, between you and your health care providers. Prenatal vitamins are an excellent insurance policy for the right person during specific stages of life, but there are other alternatives out there that may be better utilized (with fewer side effects and possibly greater benefits).

If you're not pregnant or planning to conceive in the next few months but you're looking for a comprehensive multi that covers essential micronutrient needs and also delivers hair, skin, and nail health benefits, mbg's multi is a great solution!* With no gender or age parameters, this clean and innovative ultimate multivitamin+ was created to help all adults get the essential daily nutrients they need (in their most gentle and bioavailable forms).*

If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications, consult with your doctor before starting a supplement routine. It is always optimal to consult with a health care provider when considering what supplements are right for you.