You may have been surprised when your doctor recommended you take prenatal vitamins before you’re pregnant. Even more surprising, your best friend may swear her regular prenatal vitamin regimen keeps her hair and nails strong, even though she has no plans to have a baby. When are prenatal vitamins a good idea, and when can they cause more harm than benefit?
Vitamins Are Good Things. Right?
Your body needs vitamins to be healthy. Vitamins and minerals are essential micronutrients that help your body perform hundreds of tasks to keep all systems running. Some help protect bones and skin, strengthen blood vessels or help blood clot the way it should, aid in energy metabolism, and more.
During pregnancy, your body’s vitamin and mineral needs increase. Makes sense, right? You’re “eating for two,” so you need higher doses of nutrients. Because pregnancy is also often associated with food sensitivities and nausea, it may not always be easy to get all your vitamins and minerals from your diet.
Too Much of a Good Thing
The first problem with taking prenatal vitamins when you’re not expecting is that you’re consuming a higher dose of many vitamins and minerals than you need. During pregnancy, you need about 27 mg of iron daily, instead of your usual 18, for example.
Vitamins and minerals are called micronutrients because your body needs them in small doses. If you consistently take in much more than you need, some vitamins and minerals may even cause harm as they build up in your body. You probably reach for vitamin C when you feel a cold coming on, since it may benefit your immune system. But a large overdose of vitamin C can cause stomach cramps and diarrhea.
Fat-soluble vitamins can have more severe consequences, since your body can’t flush excess quantities out in your urine, the way it can with water-soluble vitamins like vitamin C. Megadoses can even cause symptoms of poisoning or lead to birth defects! Minerals like iron can also build up in your body and cause nausea, liver toxicity, and other damage.
Prenatal Vitamins Can’t Replace a Healthy Diet
The flip side to the vitamin overdose problem is that you may get too confident that you’re getting plenty of micronutrients from your supplement. Makers of prenatal vitamins assume you’re getting a certain quantity of vitamins and minerals from your diet. They may scale back on the dose of certain ingredients (especially those that can be harmful in large amounts). Some people are tempted to make less healthy choices because they think their vitamin supplement has them covered, while in truth they’re not getting the micronutrients they need.
Oh, and your friend’s claim that prenatals are a hair-and-nail magic pill? Untrue. Pregnancy hormones can make strong nails and shiny, thick hair, not the pill. That’s why some hair shedding happens after baby, even if you’re still taking prenatal vitamins.
Can I Ever Take Prenatal Vitamins When I’m Not Pregnant?
There are times when a non-pregnant person can benefit from prenatal vitamins. When you start trying to conceive, your doctor may suggest you start taking prenatal vitamins early. This is because many people are low on folate, a vitamin that can prevent serious spine and brain defects in a developing embryo. Shoring up reserves a few months early can ensure your body has the nutrient supply it needs in the earliest weeks of pregnancy.
Many people have low levels of vitamin D as well, and women in particular may struggle to get all the calcium they need (women’s calcium needs are higher than men). Taking a prenatal vitamin that can supplement vitamin D and calcium levels, as well, can be helpful.
Breastfeeding parents may also still benefit from continuing to take a prenatal vitamin. New babies eat often. Producing enough milk for your baby to thrive is a rigorous process for your body. Eating plenty of healthy food, drinking lots of water, and taking a vitamin to minimize gaps in nutrition fuels your body for breastfeeding.
If a pregnancy isn’t in your recent past or (hopefully) soon in your future, look for another vitamin option, or focus instead on building a healthy diet that contains all the nutrients you need.