Prenatal Vitamins Side Effects and Types

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  • Medical and Pharmacy Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

What are prenatal vitamins?

If you are pregnant, as part of your prenatal care, your doctor, OB/GYN, or midwife may recommend taking prenatal vitamins to supplement nutrient requirements needed for fetal development. Prenatal vitamins (also termed Prenatal Multivitamins) are a combination of vitamins and minerals that a woman needs before, during, and after her pregnancy for her health the development of her baby. These vitamins and minerals include folic acid (folate), calcium, iron, vitamin D, and iodine in various amounts. Prenatal vitamins also contain vitamins A, E, C, B, zinc, magnesium, and thiamine. All of these are important nutrient components needed for good dietary health

What are the side effects of prenatal vitamins?

Most women who take prenatal vitamins as directed by their doctor or midwife experience little or no side effects from prenatal vitamins. The iron in prenatal vitamins may cause constipation, and some women complain of nausea. You also may have diarrhea, dark stools, low appetite, and stomach upset or cramps. Talk with your OB/GYN or midwife about any side effects you have from taking prenatal vitamins.

Should all pregnant women take prenatal vitamins?

Proper nutrition is important for your baby’s health, and your baby depends on you for all of his or her nutritional needs, which includes important vitamins, supplements, and minerals that are necessary for embryonic and fetal development. Ideally, if you eat a healthy diet (adequate food sources) it should provide all of your growing baby’s nutritional needs (with the exception of vitamin D and folic acid); however, doctors recommend taking prenatal vitamins if you are planning to conceive or are already pregnant, for your baby’s health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends multivitamin supplements for pregnant women who do not consume an adequate diet. However, your doctor or midwife may still recommend taking them unless your doctor refers you to a nutritionist for a nutritional assessment.

When should you start taking prenatal vitamins? How long should you take them?

Doctors, midwives, and other health care professionals recommend that women begin taking prenatal vitamins before they become pregnant. The brain and spinal cord of the embryo begin to develop within 3 to 4 weeks of pregnancy, when you may not even know that you are pregnant. The CDC recommends that all women of childbearing age consume folic acid daily to prevent spina bifida and anencephaly. These serious birth defects affect the baby’s developing brain and spinal cord. Your doctor or midwife may recommend that you continue to take prenatal vitamins after you have your baby, especially if you are breastfeeding. If you are planning to conceive, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss any pregnancy planning concerns.

What are the different types of prenatal vitamins?

Prenatal vitamins typically contain folic acid (folate or folate supplements), calcium, iron, iodine, zinc, and vitamins A, E, and C. The ingredients in prenatal vitamins vary depending on the product. Your doctor will recommend the right type of prenatal vitamin or prenatal supplement based on your specific needs.

  1. Iron: Iron is an important nutrient for the development of the placenta and fetus. Iron also is important for increasing the number of red blood cells in the mother. Pregnant women should take about 30 mg/day of iron during pregnancy to prevent iron deficiency anemia.
  2. Calcium and vitamin D: Calcium and vitamin D are used for developing your baby’s skeleton. The recommended amount of calcium is 1000 to 1300 mg (milligrams) per day for pregnant or lactating women.
  3. Folic acid: Folic acid is used in the development of your baby’s spinal cord (helps prevent neural tube defects) and brain. The CDC recommends that all women of childbearing age consume 0.4 mg (400 micrograms) of folic acid daily.
  4. Zinc: Zinc helps your baby develop normally and it may increase birth weight. Zinc deficiency may cause slow growth.
  5. Iodine: Iodine is needed for proper development and functioning of the thyroid gland. Iron deficiency can cause hypothyroidism in the mother or baby. Women who pregnant or breastfeeding should take of 220 to 290 mcg of iodine daily.
  6. Vitamin A: Vitamin A is needed for proper eye development. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to night blindness. Pregnant women should take 770 mcg per day of vitamin A.

Other vitamins and supplements for if you are planning to conceive or are pregnant

Other vitamins and/or prenatal supplements may contain vitamin B 12, omega-3 fatty acids, and docosahexaenoic acid (prenatal DHA) and other compounds; your OB/GYN should specify what vitamin preparation is best for you.

Prenatal vitamins may be available in many forms; tablets, capsules, chewable and soft gels. Some, for example, Rainbow Light, claim to be certified as organic. Some are available over-the-counter while others are prescribed (for example, Citra natal Harmony). Many are not approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) because they are seen as dietary supplements.

How and when should I take prenatal vitamins?

Taking prenatal vitamins with a light snack or after meals and at bedtime may help reduce nausea. You can prevent constipation by drinking more fluids, eating foods that contain fiber, and increasing physical activity. Your health-care professional may recommend stool softeners if natural remedies do not help.

Do not take more prenatal vitamins than recommended. Do not combine prenatal vitamins with other vitamin supplements unless your doctor or midwife tells you to because excessive amounts of vitamins can cause harm to you and your developing baby.

Who else should take prenatal vitamins?

If you answer yes to one or more of the following questions then you have an increased risk of malnutrition, and your doctor will recommend that you take prenatal supplements in addition to consultation with a dietitian.

  1. Are you pregnant with more than one baby?
  2. Are you a teenager?
  3. Are you a Vegan?
  4. Have you had surgery for weight loss (bariatric surgery)?
  5. Do you have Crohn’s disease or other conditions that affect absorption of nutrients?
  6. Do you have lactase deficiency?
  7. Are you a heavy smoker?
  8. Do you use or abuse illicit drugs?
  9. Do you smoke?
  10. Do you drink?

Where can I buy prenatal vitamins?

Prenatal vitamins are available over-the-counter (OTC) or by prescription. Your doctor or midwife will recommend a prenatal vitamin based on your health needs. For example, he or she may recommend that you take a prenatal vitamin high in iron if you have iron deficiency anemia. Follow the advice of your health care professional or pharmacist when selecting an over-the-counter prenatal vitamin.

Summary

Prenatal vitamins are recommended by most doctors prior to getting pregnant, throughout your pregnancy, and after you have your baby. The developing embryo and fetus need extra vitamins for healthy development. Prenatal vitamins cause few side effects like constipation and nausea. Some women also experience side effects such as:


Prenatal vitamins have iron, calcium and vitamin D, folic acid (to prevent birth defects), zinc, iodine, and vitamin A. Some prenatal multivitamins also contain other minerals and supplements like vitamin B 12 and omega-3 fatty acids.

Doctors and other health-care professionals also recommend taking prenatal vitamins if you:
Talk with your doctor, OB/GYN, midwife, or other health-care professional about taking prenatal vitamins.

REFERENCE: USDA. "Why Take a Prenatal Supplement?" Updated: Jul 02, 2015.

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Medically Reviewed on 9/19/2017
References
REFERENCES:

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Top Tips for Eating Right During Pregnancy." Updated Nov 2016.
<http://www.eatright.org/resource/health/pregnancy/what-to-eat-when-expecting/eating-right-during-pregnancy>

CDC. "Planning for pregnancy." Updated: Feb 13, 2017.
<https://www.cdc.gov/preconception/planning.html>

CCD. "Preconception Health and Health Care." Last Updated: Feb 13, 2017.
<https://www.cdc.gov/preconception/index.html>

Hylton, J, DO. "Prenatal Nutrition." Medscape. Updated: May 03, 2017.
<http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/259059-overview>

Russell, P. "Multivitamins in Pregnancy 'Are a Waste of Money." Medscape. July 12, 2016.
<https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/866007>
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