Prenatal Vitamins – the Basics
Taking your prenatal vitamin is very important when you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant. We need extra vitamins and minerals to make sure our babies can be as healthy as possible. You probably already know that folate is probably the most important supplement to take because it helps prevent neural tube defects (birth defects of the brain and spine). Iron is also important. But what about omega-3 fatty acids, specifically docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)? You may have heard of this by now. Sometimes it’s included in prenatal vitamins, but sometimes it’s not. What is it? Is it important? How much should I take? Where can I find it? Keep reading to learn more.
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Dietary fats, specifically the type called omega-3 fatty acids, are important for brain development and regulation of blood clotting. They also have anti-inflammatory properties.1 There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids you should know:
- docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
They all must be provided by the diet because the body cannot make them on its own.
DHA and EPA are primarily found in fatty fish (tuna, salmon, etc.) while ALA is found in plants like nuts and seeds. The most plentiful fatty acid in the brain is DHA.2
What’s the Right Amount?
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends eating “at least 8 ounces and up to 12 ounces (about two to three servings) of fish or shellfish per week” in order to get the right amount of omega-3 fatty acids (which is about 200 mg DHA per day).1,2 Obviously, that may be difficult to do – you may not like fish or shellfish, and you are probably aware that many types of fish such as swordfish and shark can be contaminated with high levels of mercury (pregnant women are advised to avoid mercury).
If DHA is not in your prenatal vitamin, and you’re not big on eating fish, another option is fish oil capsules. The problem is figuring out what to buy. As you may or may know, supplements are not regulated by the FDA. Plus, there are so many options. According to my pregnant friend, “It’s actually really confusing what to buy at the store. The labels are confusing.” And she’s a doctor! The best bet is to speak to your obstetrician before you go to buy or seek out help from the in-store pharmacist.
Why Is It Recommended?
Here’s the gist: observational studies have suggested an association between omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in pregnant and improved cognitive function (thinking, reasoning, remembering, etc.) in their offspring. However, it’s important to note that observational studies cannot be used to determine cause.
There are a handful of studies that are of better quality, but they did not get the same results. Studies have not consistently shown any effect on babies’ body size/makeup or IQ or incidence of preeclampsia for the women taking the supplements. A review of studies, however, did find that pregnant women who received supplements had a longer gestation and lower risk of preterm delivery (<34 weeks).2
- American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Nutrition in Pregnancy.
- Formulary Journal. Prenatal vitamins: A review of the literature on benefits and risks of various nutrient supplements