- Prenatal vitamins serve an important purpose for women of childbearing age
- They don’t necessarily enhance nails or hair, but they do help your embryo develop
For women of childbearing age, it’s a good idea to take what are known as “prenatal vitamins” -- vitamins containing folic acid, iron and often, some other compounds, such as calcium, Vitamin D and omega-3 acids.
It’s a good idea because it’s well established that folates lower the risk of neural tube birth defects, a class of defects in which the embryo’s spine doesn’t develop normally.
But taking prenatal vitamins for other reasons, such as enhancing a woman’s hair or thickening her nails is, at least, “redundant,” says Tanya Sorensen, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine physician at Swedish Maternal and Fetal Specialty Center in Seattle.
While some have suggested that taking prenatal vitamins helps thicken and strengthen hair and nails, there’s no evidence that this is true. “We really don’t know the data on that,” Dr. Sorensen says.
That said, there’s no particular harm in taking prenatal vitamins, except for perhaps the cost.
The benefits of prenatal vitamins
Dr. Sorensen advises all women of childbearing age to take prenatal vitamins, not just those who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant.
“We don’t want people to wait until they’re trying to become pregnant, because so many pregnancies are unplanned,” she says.
So what are prenatal vitamins?
They are sold over the counter, usually bearing names that include “prenatal.” But the ingredient to look for is folic acid, which is a B vitamin. It occurs naturally in green, leafy vegetables, but most people don’t get enough.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, citing extensive research around the world, says pregnant women should take at least 400 micrograms of folic acid a day.
Folic acid helps prevent neural tube disorders, which affect an embryo’s spine and brain and include such disorders as spina bifida. As the CDC puts it:
“Using data from birth defects tracking systems, researchers found that since folic acid fortification, about 1,300 babies are born each year without an NTD who might otherwise have been affected.”
While it’s unclear how or whether many vitamins and compounds benefit pregnant women and their embryos, “the benefits of folic acid and iron are very, very clear,” says Dr. Sorensen.
“If you only take one thing, take extra folic acid,” she says.
Raising awareness of the benefits
Despite the clear benefits of taking prenatal vitamins with folic acid, many pregnant women don’t take them. Many simply aren’t aware of the risks of not doing so. A study published in the National Library of Medicine found that women who didn’t take folic acid during pregnancy generally weren’t informed about pregnancy health and took fewer tests during pregnancy.
“Compliance with taking prenatal vitamins is not awesome,” says Dr. Sorensen. “For a lot of people, it wouldn’t cross their minds.”
She says she hopes that the primary care providers of women of childbearing age are encouraging them to take prenatal vitamins.
If you are a woman of childbearing age, take prenatal vitamins that contain folic acid. Learn more about pregnancy and childbirth resources at Swedish. If you are a mom or a mom-to-be, download the free Circle by Swedish app for Swedish-approved resources, tools and answers for raising healthy children.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.