For those who are pregnant, or considering to conceive, one of the questions that may come up is whether or not prenatal vitamins are beneficial to the pregnancy. There are those who are both sides of the fence on this issue and there are many who consider DHA as the most important vitamin supplement for pregnant women. Here, we’ll explore this consideration further and offer comprehensive information.
The nature of “prenatal vitamins”
While we all know what artificial multivitamin supplements are, many individuals wonder exactly what the difference is between standard store-bought vitamins and prenatal vitamins. Well, prenatal vitamins will typically contain a higher amount of iron and folic acid than standard adult multivitamins. In addition, advantages of vitamin c and zinc are great. These molecules found in higher levels in prenatal vitamins. However, vitamin A is found in lower levels, since higher levels may become toxic to the fetus.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a type of omega-3 fatty acid that is also found in prenatal vitamins. DHA is primarily found in fish and is required for a number of health functions in adults. Pregnant women also depend on this form of fatty acid in order to promote the healthy development of the fetus. Still, the question remains; “Do you need prenatal vitamins?” That’s because not all pregnant women take prenatal vitamins. So, let’s take a closer look.
Difference between typical multivitamins and supplements and Prenatal Vitamins
It can be said that those who eat a well-balanced diet would generally have no need for a multivitamin supplement. Of course, that’s in a “perfect world”. These days, as it stands, eating a well-balanced diet that contains all the required nutrients can be far more difficult than it was, say many years ago. Back then, diets were all natural and humans had learned, over an evolutionary period, what was good for them to eat.
Nowadays, we are plagued with fast food and artificially created food choices. These options, in many cases, don’t provide the vitamins that we need. Add to that, a busy schedule which limits the time to prepare and consume a healthy meal. Here, multivitamins can help fill in the nutritional gaps.
These considerations hold true even more so for pregnant women who are in the process of developing a growing fetus inside them in addition to their normal adult routine. As time went on, with the advent of modern medicine, healthy nutrition entered the pharmaceutical industry and solutions to nutritional gaps came into focus.
What are Prenatal Vitamins?
Prenatal vitamins are multivitamin supplements designed to create a healthier nutritional balance for pregnant women. Prenatal vitamins can either be purchased over-the-counter, in most pharmacies, or they can be prescribed by a doctor. A woman’s healthcare provider can also suggest a particular brand of prenatal vitamin.
But, in general, you may want to ensure that a prenatal multi-vitamin contains properly balanced levels of; (A, B3, B6, C, D, and folic acid), minerals (calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and zinc), fatty acids (total omega-3, EPA, and DHA), and heavy metals.
Of course, prenatal vitamins are only a supplement to one’s vitamin regimen and are not to be considered a substitute for healthy eating, since they are not designed to provide 100% of a person’s vitamin and mineral requirements. It should also be noted that, under certain medical conditions, separate supplements may also be required and prescribed by a physician.
How did prenatal vitamins become popular?
Back in the 1970s, several vitamin production companies began to include folic acid to their multivitamin supplement formulas. As more research was conducted regarding the biochemistry of pregnancy, more assumptions began to surface regarding the optimum vitamin selections are the best prenatal vitamins to take to facilitate a healthy pregnancy. The amount of research conducted reached its zenith in the 1980s,
We now understand that folic acid, iron, calcium, B6 and B12 and omega-3s will support the development of a healthy baby. As with many issues regarding pregnancy, women became fixated on what they were told that was best for their developing child. Soon, the concept of taking prenatal vitamins as a ‘standard’ came into being.
Although a significant number of women had difficulty tolerating prenatal multi-vitamins and many gave birth without using them at all, the standard stayed with us. However, it’s been shown that prenatal multi-vitamins can reduce the risk of certain prenatal problems (e.g. spina bifida) and are helpful in other ways. This is why today’s standard is one prenatal vitamin per day for pregnant women and they are generally recommended by doctors.
The Benefits of Prenatal Vitamins
While sourcing one’s vitamins directly from food is considered optimum, it has already been mentioned that this may not always be practical. The lack of proper nutrients during pregnancy may result in:
- Heart Disease
- Neural Tube Defects
- Low I.Q.
- Low Birth Weight
In addition, there can be long-term medical problems such as; obesity, high cholesterol levels and elevated blood sugar. However, it should be noted that in particular regards to vitamins, themselves, there is still some controversy regarding prenatal benefits.
The benefits of proper nutrition during pregnancy can be:
- Future osteoporosis for the mother
- Minimize nausea for the mother
- Minimize constipation for the mother
- Avoid low birth weight
- Supports average and higher I.Q.
- Avoid potential brain defects
- Avoid potential spinal cord defects
The Most Recommended Prenatal Nutrients
Listed here are the 5 most recommended prenatal nutrients that provide the necessary nutrients for the development of the fetus and the overall good health of the mother.
DHA – is an omega-3 essential fatty acid (EFA). One of the most important things to note is that while EFAs are necessary for overall health, they are not produced by the human body. Therefore, they need to be consumed either through one’s diet or through supplementation. The role of DHA is to act as an anti-inflammatory agent, along with eicosapentaenoic acid, which is another omega-3. These counterbalance the effects of the omega-6 series.
Unfortunately, the amount of omega-6 fatty acid that is consumed in the U.S. far outweighs the amount of omega-3. This leads to an increase of different diseases, such as; depression, adult-onset diabetes mellitus, atherosclerosis, myocardial infarction, hypertension, arthritis, thrombosis, and some cancers.
In addition, decades of research has indicated DHA’s influence on a newborn’s; motor development, eyesight and coordination. It has also been shown that DHA is the primary building block of an infant’s brain and nervous system – especially during the 3rd trimester of pregnancy, as well as the first several years of life. Therefore, it can be essential that pregnant women receive DHA in their supplementation.
Flaxseed Oil – is derived from the Linum usitatissimum or “flax plant”. A major component of flaxseed oil is an essential omega-3 fatty acid known as alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA (45-65%). The human body cannot produce its own omega-3 fats. Therefore, we usually get them from foods such as; walnuts, fish oil and flax.
During pregnancy, when flaxseed oil is introduced as a supplement, it is postulated that it can assist with the brain development of the fetus. It has been shown that a fetus that does not receive sufficient omega-3 fats will most likely have a low birth weight and smaller head circumference (according to The Franklin Institute).
However, it should also be noted that the amount that are ingested may be cause for concern. There was a study in 2008 study from the Université de Montréal that concluded women who had ingested flaxseed oil during their pregnancy had a 12% risk of a preterm birth as opposed to the normal average of 3% of healthy women who did not take flaxseed oil. This correlation was established with women who had taken flaxseed oil during their 2nd and 3rd trimesters.
Folic Acid – Folic acid is a B vitamin that every human cell requires for development and normal growth. Its job is to produce red blood cells, which carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.
Taking folic acid both before and during pregnancy can assist in preventing brain and spine birth defects. These are known as NTDs (neural tube defects) and can occur during the 1st month of pregnancy. Since, in many cases, a woman may not even be aware of being pregnant during that time, it’s important to have sufficient folic acid in a woman’s system prior to getting pregnant.
NTDs occur in about 3,000 pregnancies each year in the U.S. If women took 400 micrograms (also called mcg) of folic acid daily, prior to getting pregnant (and during early pregnancy), it may help prevent up to 70% percent of NTDs.
Iron – During pregnancy, a woman requires approximately double the amount of iron than she did prior to becoming pregnant. The primary reason for this has to do with the fact that she will need the increased iron in order to produce additional blood for her baby. However, it is estimated the up to 50% of pregnant women don’t get enough of this nutrient.
A pregnant woman’s body uses iron so that extra hemoglobin (blood) is made, which will prevent a condition known as iron deficiency anemia. Besides making the woman feel extra tired, it can cause the baby to be born too early or too small. The recommended amount of iron intake, for pregnant women, is at least 27 milligrams (mg) daily. In addition, during breastfeeding, the recommended daily amount of iron intake is 9 mg for women 19 or older and 10 mg for moms 18 and younger.
Calcium – A developing baby requires calcium in order to build strong teeth and bones. It is also essential for growing healthy muscles, nerves and heart. In addition, it will help the baby with blood-clotting abilities and a normal heart rhythm.
For the mother, it will also reduce the risk of preeclampsia and hypertension. Preeclampsia is a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and possible damage to other organ systems, most often the liver and kidneys.
In addition, it should also be noted that Vitamin D is also required in order to metabolize calcium, so that should also be included in a pregnant woman’s diet/supplementation. But avoid a vitamin d otc overdose. More is not always better. Another thing to consider, regarding calcium, is that the pregnant woman’s baby will also draw calcium from her bones and teeth and this can result in problems for the mother, later on.
For Women ages 19 to 50: 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium a day before, during and after pregnancy is needed.
For Women age 18 and younger: 1,300 mg a day before, during and after pregnancy is needed.
The Benefits of Adjusting Supplementation During the Course of Pregnancy
During pregnancy, it is recommended that adjustments in diet are beneficial during the different trimesters. For example, during the 2nd trimester, it is important to eat foods that are rich in magnesium, calcium and vitamin D. This will be necessary for the development of strong bones and teeth. It is also recommended that omega-3 oils (DHA) also be consumed for the baby’s brain development. Foods that include these nutrients include:
- Greek yogurt
- Dried fruit
- Canned sardines
- Peanut butter
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Green beans
As a woman progresses through her pregnancy, it is important that she obtain the recommendations of her doctor as to the types of food that she should eat. That’s because each pregnancy is different and may require specific nutrient levels, depending on the mother’s and baby’s health.
Other standard recommendations include what not to eat during the three trimesters. For example, the foods that should be avoided during the second trimester include large amounts of fish which may include mercury. These include; swordfish, king mackerel and shark. Seafood that contains low amounts of mercury includes; catfish, shrimp, salmon and light tuna (canned).
DHA: Why it’s the Most Important Prenatal Vitamin
What are DHA and EPA?
DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid. EPA stands for eicosapentaenoic acid. Both are omega-3 fatty acids, which are generally found in cold water fish. They are highly unsaturated fats and they are important for our body’s health. In particular, they will facilitate the functions of the brain (DHA) and the retinas (EPA). Healthy retinas are essential for our vision.
Both DHA and EPA are converted into prostaglandins, which are hormone-like substances that will regulate cellular activity for a healthier cardiovascular system. While both EPA and DHA are important for prenatal fetus development, DHA is considered the most important. That’s because, during the third trimester, concentrations of DHA in the brain of the fetus will increase by 300-500%. Therefore, in order to facilitate the brain development during that time, DHA is needed. Other DHA and EPA benefits include; acting as sources of energy, cushioning organs/tissues, prevent the skin from drying out and insulates the body against heat loss.
Sources for DHA
The best food sources for DHA include:
- Supplemented foods – Such as omega 3 eggs
- Dark leafy vegetables – Fresh basil, spinach, Chinese broccoli
- Oily Fish – Salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, tuna and swordfish
- Nuts – Walnuts and butternuts
- Seeds – Flaxseed / linseed and chia seeds
While omega-3 has been mentioned extensively in this work, omega-6 should also be touched upon. Omega-6 is also a fatty acid and is found in abundance in modern diets. That’s because of its presence in today’s popular foods.
- Chicken, pork and beef
- Eggs and dairy
- Fast-food, such as onion rings and French fries
- Vegetable oil
- Baked items such as; bread, cookies and muffins
Omega-6 in our diet helps to lessen the risk of rheumatoid arthritis, diabetic neuropathy and allergies. There have even been correlations that link omega-6 and decreased ADHD symptoms. Omega-6 is also known to decrease LDL (“bad” cholesterol), while increasing HDL (“good cholesterol”). This can assist with lowering the risk of heart disease.
Interestingly enough, modern society individuals (especially in the U.S.) tend to get too much omega-6 due to a dependence on fast food. This can result in depression and increased inflammation.
Prenatal Multivitamin vs Prenatal DHA: Why they don’t offer the same benefits
Prenatal multivitamins the Prenetal DHA won’t yield similar advantages for you and your child. A Prenatal Multivitamin contains a ton of vitamins and minerals that give you and your child general nutritional benefits. However, it may not give a decent amount of DHA thus the need to take prenatal DHA.
When should I take Prenatal DHA?
Prenatal supplementation should start before and amid pregnancy, and also throughout the breastfeeding stage. Mothers should allow no less than a half year before conceiving to prepare the necessary DHA. Having multiple pregnancies could lead to depleted DHA stores.
What happens when you take too much DHA?
While getting excessive DHA is relatively unimaginable with dietary sources alone, supplementation can spike the amount you have on a daily basis. One of the known dangers is blood thinning which could translate to excessive bleeding during delivery. Other conceivable side effects include nausea, headaches, vomiting, and dizziness.
Most physicians prescribe at least 300 mg DHA per day although research suggests 1,000 mg is harmless to both mother and child. The problem with overdosing on DHA is not the nutrient itself, but where comes from and how it was made and processed.
For that, we recommend taking DHA supplements that are molecularly distilled or sourced from algae.
Algae Oil: The Vegetarian DHA
Algae oil, as the name implies, is extracted from algae. The best thing about this algae is how it can be a sustainable and much more ethical way of obtaining organic DHA. Algae oil is widely known to be of having higher purity than fish oil when raised in a clean farm. This eliminates the risks of ingesting harmful compounds like mercury, which many people get from fish consumption.
Fish oil and Algae oil: Advantages and Disadvantages
The perks of sourcing from fish oil are its current abundance and popularity in the market. This large supply makes it much more cost-effective and easier to produce than its algae counterpart. Its biggest drawbacks include how it spoils easily, may contain pollutants and harmful compounds such as mercury and lead, it increases the risk of overfishing, and it just doesn’t taste and smell good.
Some of the highlights of algae oil are having no moral arguments, can be consumed by vegans, and is said to be much more environmentally sustainable. Algae oil’s highlights include no moral arguments with regards to its sourcing, can be enjoyed by both omnivores and vegans, much more environmentally sustainable, and has no contaminants when grown in a clean environment. It’s primary disadvantage is its rarity which translates to a higher price point.
What to look for in a Prenatal DHA
Quality brands. The quality of trusted brands are often worth paying the extra dollar for. After all, the safety and healthy development of your child is worth investing on.
- Tip: You should also consider brands that guarantee “no fish burps.”
Essential nutrients. You can source a lot of the nutrients you need from a good diet, but that’s not to say the perks of supplementation are not warranted. As we mentioned earlier, the dosage of the nutrient you’re looking to supplement with matters. For DHA, you should buy one that contains at least 300 mg per serving.
Source of DHA. No matter how you look at it, DHA from fish will always be the easiest and cheapest option. However, both vegans and non-vegans should consider algae-sourced DHA too due to their purity as well as environmental sustainability.
The source always matters when it comes to supplements. Some supplements may source DHA from fish that contain high amounts of mercury. Too much mercury inside your baby may cause delays in walking and talking, poor memory and attention span, irreversible brain damage, and sensory problems.
Why is Diet Standards Prenatal DHA better than others?
When it comes to Prenatal DHA, nothing beats Diet Standards Prenatal DHA.
Here are what makes Diet Standards Prenatal DHA superior to other products:
- Algae sourced.
- Vegan softgels
- Offers 825 mg of Omega-3s per serving
- One serving contains 450 mg DHA and 225 EPA
- Zero allergens (fish, egg, gluten, soy, milk, nuts) and zero contaminants
- They submit to 3rd party lab tests and posts the results on their website.
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