The importance of prenatal supplements cannot be understated. In addition to serving as a back-up for any nutritional gaps, a prenatal supplement can help reduce risk for some birth defects, as well as reduce the risk of preterm birth and low birth weight baby, while also helping women to maintain their own health during pregnancy.
Health professionals uniformly espouse the importance of a healthy diet and the fact it is the ideal way for a woman to get the nutrients she and her baby need.
However, many women in their childbearing years don’t get the nutrients they need. Additionally, the requirements for several vitamins and minerals increase during pregnancy. Suppliers and marketers understand that pregnancy represents a time of rapid change in maternal physiology and nutritional requirements. These changes allow the mother to meet the needs of the growing fetus and placenta and occur within weeks of the establishment of pregnancy.
Dietary recommendations during pregnancy have focused on maintaining adequate caloric intake while avoiding substances that may harm the growing fetus. A particular focus on micronutrients during pregnancy has led to specific recommendations regarding nutrients including calcium, folic acid and iron, among others.
Calcium: vital to building and sustaining strong bones. Interestingly, it is also necessary for almost every function in the body, including nerve conduction, hormone secretion and contraction of the blood vessels and muscles.
Calcium is found in dairy products (the best sources of the mineral), as well as dark green vegetables, and some fish. Three servings of low-fat dairy products, such as yogurt, cheese or milk, daily, should provide adequate calcium. However, most women find it difficult to consume adequate amounts of calcium-rich foods daily.
The Daily Recommended Intake (DRI) for calcium is 1,000 mg/d. This daily intake remains constant throughout childbearing years, even during pregnancy. Most prenatal vitamins contain only small amounts of calcium because the calcium molecule is too large to put much into a capsule or tablet. Many doctors recommend a calcium supplement in addition to a multivitamin or prenatal vitamin, particularly for women who consume few or no dairy products. Calcium citrate is easier to absorb because it doesn’t require the presence of extra stomach acid. Calcium carbonate should be taken with a meal.
Folic acid: It’s critically important for women who are pregnant or might become pregnant to take folic acid (the synthetic form of vitamin B9, also known as folate).
Folic acid helps prevent neural tube defects (NTDs)—serious birth defects of the spinal cord (such as spina bifida) and the brain (such as anencephaly). The neural tube is the part of the embryo from which the baby's spine and brain develop. NTDs impact about 3,000 pregnancies annually in the United States.
NTDs occur at a very early stage of development, before many women even know they're pregnant. This is why it's important for women to begin taking folic acid before trying to conceive.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women who take the recommended daily dose of folic acid at least one month before conception and during the first trimester of pregnancy reduce their baby's risk of NTDs by up to 70 percent.
Some research suggests folic acid may help lower a baby's risk of other defects, including cleft lip, cleft palate and certain types of heart defects. Folic acid may also reduce the risk of preeclampsia, a serious blood pressure disorder that affects about 5 percent of pregnant women.
What else does folic acid do? The body needs this nutrient to make normal red blood cells that prevent a type of anemia. It's also essential for the production, repair and functioning of DNA, our genetic map and basic cell building blocks. Getting enough folic acid is particularly important for the rapid cell growth of the placenta and the developing baby.
Foods rich in folic acid include citrus fruit, leafy green vegetables and dried peas and beans.
Iron: This mineral is used to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to the organs and tissues. When pregnant, the body makes extra blood for both the mother and the baby. The body needs extra iron to make this blood and to support the baby's rapid growth.
If a woman does not get enough iron from their diet, the body gradually depletes its iron stores, and the woman is at risk for becoming anemic. Iron deficiency during pregnancy is very common. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that half of all pregnant women worldwide are iron deficient.
According to health professionals, iron deficiency in the first two trimesters is associated with a twofold risk that the baby will be born preterm and a threefold risk of low birth weight. Fortunately, iron deficiency is easy to prevent and to treat.
What are the signs of iron deficiency? When the body's iron stores are depleted, the result is a lower-than-normal level of hemoglobin in the blood. Often, symptoms aren’t apparent. But sometimes more obvious signs—including fatigue, breathlessness, pale skin and brittle nails—are present.
There are three types of ferrous iron supplements:
- Ferrous sulfate
- Ferrous fumarate
- Ferrous gluconate
All are good. However, what's most important is the amount of elemental iron that is in the supplement that is being taken.
Iron is best absorbed on an empty stomach. It should be taken in the morning or before bed at night. Certain foods and vitamins inhibit the absorption of iron, including calcium. Calcium supplements should not be taken with an iron supplement, though most prenatal vitamins contain calcium. Caffeine also prevents iron absorption. In fact, it is best for pregnant women to avoid caffeine altogether. Interestingly, vitamin C is great for iron absorption.
While proper nutrition is of utmost importance for pregnant women, it’s important to understand that maternal nutrition is not the only factor affecting the development of a child in utero. Many issues influence how fetuses grow, and some are within our control while others are not. The main thing for expectant mothers to do is to make sure they eat healthy, supplement when appropriate and remain aware of the link between the prenatal diet and neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood. In the end, proper nutrition during pregnancy is the very best gift to give an unborn child.
Mark Becker is an Account Manager for Vivion, a raw materials distributor, based in Vernon, CA. He has worked as a natural products sales and marketing executive for 20 years. Mark has written more than 300 articles and has hosted or been a guest on more than 500 radio shows. He obtained a bachelor's in journalism from Long Beach State University and did his Master’s work in communications at Cal State Fullerton. For more than 30 years he has participated in numerous endurance events, including more than 150 triathlons of Olympic distance or longer, 103 marathons and numerous other events including ultramarathons and rough water swims from Alcatraz to the mainland. He has relied on a comprehensive dietary supplement and homeopathic regimen to support his athletic, professional and personal endeavors. Follow Mark Becker on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/marklbecker/posts/387591877933686#!/energyatlast. Follow Mark on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/becker_mark. For more information, access www.vivioninc.com or www.EnergyatLast.com.