Good nutrition is important throughout our lives, but becomes especially essential during pregnancy.
Baby will take what she needs from you whether you have enough to spare or not, so you have to be sure you are getting enough nutrients for you and for your growing baby.
Unfortunately, many moms begin pregnancy deficient in one or more vitamins or minerals, so prenatal vitamins become especially important.
Pregnancy superfoods like avocados, liver, and dates are great for getting many of the nutrients you need, but, with our depleted soils and industrialized food system, it’s not always possible to get everything we need from food alone. Which is why pregnancy supplements and prenatal vitamins are so important for a healthy pregnancy.
But not all prenatal vitamins are created equally. Read on to find the best prenatal for you.
The origins of prenatal vitamins
Prenatal vitamins came into use in the middle of the 20th century when research pointed to folate and iron deficiencies causing problems in pregnancy and fetal development.
Unfortunately, prescription prenatal vitamins often cause women to feel sick to their stomach, or have heartburn, indigestion, or constipation, making them not the best prenatal vitamins for some women. This may be because prescription prenatal blends often contain higher levels of iron and folic acid which can cause some of these symptoms.
Luckily today we have other options for over the counter prenatal vitamins.
Why do I need prenatal vitamins?
Growing a baby is tough work. Baby will take what he needs so to avoid losing your own stores of nutrients, you have to get enough vitamins and minerals for both of you. Here are the most common vitamins and minerals in prenatal vitamins and just an overview of what they do in the body:
- Vitamin A – Supports eye and brain development, respiratory development
- Thiamin (Vitamin B1)– Supports the nervous system, supports baby’s brain development
- Riboflavin (Vitamin B2) – Supports healthy eyes and skin
- Niacin (Vitamin B3) – Supports the digestive, integumentary, and nervous systems.
- Pantothenic (Vitamin B5) – Helps to create hormones and may ease leg cramps.
- Vitamin B6 – Helps form red blood cells. May help with morning sickness
- Biotin (Vitamin B7) -Works with other B vitamins to help release energy from food
- Folate/ Folic Acid (Vitamin B9) – Prevents Neural tube defects and Spina Bifida in baby
- Vitamin B12 – Promotes blood formation, helps prevent and even fight birth defects that affect the spine and central nervous system
- Vitamin C – Helps your body absorb iron and protects against the effects of stress
- Vitamin D – Helps strengthen your and baby’s bones and teeth and helps your body to utilize Calcium and Phosphorus
- Vitamin E – Overall wellness and metabolism, may help reduce miscarriages
- Vitamin K – Supports healthy bone formation, blood clotting, and healing
- Calcium – Supports bone development
- Copper – Plays a role in iron metabolism, supports blood health
- Iron – Helps the blood carry oxygen
- Iodine – Supports healthy thyroid function, metabolism, fetal growth and hearing
- Magnesium – Supports healthy blood pressure and healthy birth weight
- Zinc – Supports immune, nerve, and muscle function
Standard synthetic prenatal vitamins
These are the ones you can get at most drug stores. They are a complete cross-spectrum of nutrients, but they are created in a laboratory with vitamin isolates separated from the natural co-factors like phytonutrients that help your body absorb or utilize the vitamin.
These synthetic vitamins are shown to be nutritionally inferior to natural vitamins and can cause digestive issues which may be a sign of vitamin toxicity. For example, long-term synthetic calcium supplementation is tied to kidney stones, stroke and earlier death in women.
Synthetic vitamin E can be especially problematic. Research has linked synthetic vitamin E to DNA damage to the liver, hemorrhagic stroke, prostate cancer in men, and congenital heart defects in babies born to women taking large doses of vitamin E.
Beta-carotene is an important precursor to vitamin A. Unfortunately, it’s synthetic form can cause problems. Researchers found that high amounts of synthetic beta-carotene may actually block some of the mechanisms of vitamin A in the body.
Beta-carotene, in its synthetic form, isn’t the only synthetic vitamin that may cause vitamin depletion. For example, adequate vitamin D and vitamin K are necessary for your body to absorb calcium and store in the right places, so if you don’t have enough of vitamins D and K, you can run into issues.
Whole, natural foods contain a variety of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that work together to be absorbed and utilized. When vitamins are isolated, like they are in synthetic vitamin blends, your body may utilize the vitamins but also may deplete others.
Food-based prenatals: Best prenatal vitamins
Food-based prenatals are more absorbable and gentler on the stomach because they are derived from food instead of isolated vitamins.
Many women who suffer from constipation or nausea while on conventional prenatal vitamins during pregnancy see a significant improvement when switching to food based prenatals. Because they are derived from food, these prenatal blends contain the enzymes, phytonutrients, and other co-factors that make the vitamin most absorbable and add to the spectrum of nutrition. Many also include probiotics and herbal blends too.
The downside to food based prenatals is that they are more expensive and have lower levels of each vitamin and mineral than a synthetic vitamin. However, they are thought to be more highly absorbable than synthetics, so high levels of vitamins aren’t necessary or beneficial.
Here’s a comparison of food-based prenatals.
MegaFood Baby & Me prenatal vitamins
MegaFood offers two versions of its prenatal blend: Baby & Me and Baby & Me 2 (doesn’t contain the herbal blend).
I took the herb-free version when I was pregnant as I didn’t want to include ginger, which has been linked to premature labor in large doses. I also was drinking red raspberry leaf tea regularly, so didn’t need more, which is found in the herb blend.
I went with MegaFood because I really trust their high-quality standards: non-GMO, no pesticides/herbicides, and made from farm-fresh food.
I liked this prenatal because it contains a great cross-spectrum of nutrients, is higher in vitamin D, contains vitamin K and has lots of good B vitamins. It’s strong in Iodine, Iron and Zinc, three important minerals in pregnancy. It is lower in vitamin A, which was fine by me since I took my cod liver oil. It’s also low in calcium and magnesium so I ate my organic, grass-fed dairy regularly and took supplemental magnesium at night for a restful sleep.
I never had digestive distress or went into pregnancy-induced anemia.
New Chapter Perfect Prenatals
Perfect Prenatal is gluten-free, non-GMO, and made from organic foods. It is strong in vitamin D, K and Iron. But it doesn’t reach the RDA in Zinc, Iodine, Calcium, Magnesium and surprisingly Folate (probably the most important nutrient when pregnant).
It contains soy, which is a high allergen food, even if it’s fermented. Also, some people don’t like that it’s owned by Procter and Gamble.
I do know many moms who swear by this prenatal though, and I do like how it includes probiotics and a sprout blend.
This is a popular prenatal in the crunchy world and for good reason. It contains double the iron of most prenatals and is strong in iodine, zinc, copper, and vitamin C. It also contains a hearty dose of probiotics and is known for being gentle on the stomach.
Additionally, you only need to take one a day which can be more convenient, especially if you have pregnancy brain!
However, it does contain vitamin D2, instead of the more absorbable D3. It also contains folic acid instead of folate, which is a big problem if you have MTHFR issues. (More on that later.) Find this prenatal vitamin here.
Vitamin Code Raw Prenatal
Vitamin Code is another popular food-based prenatal. It is non-GMO, contains no fillers, and is processed at low heat for optimal nutrient retention. It is strong in vitamin C, iodine, iron and all of the vitamin B’s.
It contains double the vitamin D3 of most prenatals, which may sound good, but it is lower in vitamin K, which can be problematic for good calcium absorption. It’s also lower in zinc and copper, important trace minerals.
Some moms can’t take this formula because they are allergic to one of the many food ingredients like seeds and grains. This prenatal recommends you take 1 capsule 3 times a day which can be inconvenient for some. Find them here.
Prenatal vitamins for moms who have the MTHFR mutation
The MTHFR defect, which some say affects up to 50-60% of the population, makes it difficult for your body to convert folic acid (and even folate) into a usable form (called methylation). The two gene mutations most studied and connected with this defect are found at the C677T and A1298C positions on the MTHFR gene.
Having MTHFR issues makes it more difficult for the body to detoxify. During pregnancy this is especially concerning because the build-up of unusable folic acid (from processed food and certain prenatals) can cause toxicity and folate deficiency because it blocks absorption of naturally occurring folate.
Folate deficiencies are associated with some birth defects such as spina bifida and neural tube defects. The MTHFR mutation can cause miscarriage, preeclampsia, forgetfulness, and brain fog among other symptoms.
That’s why it is so critical to know if you have the MTHFR mutation and, if so, to take the right form of prenatal when you are pregnant.
Luckily there are prenatal blends designed for women who have the MHTFR mutation.
MTHFR Prenatal: Seeking Health
Seeking Health’s prenatal. This prenatal was created by one of the world’s MTHFR experts, Dr. Ben Lynch. It contains methylfolate and folinic acid which are especially great for women who can’t process folic acid of even folate. It also contains methylcobalamin and adenosylcobalamin, absorbable forms of B12 for those with the MTHFR defects.
This prenatal is very high in all vitamins and minerals and even includes some helpful foods and herbs (including ginger which some moms prefer to avoid).
However, this prenatal doesn’t contain any iron, so I would add Megafood Blood Builder or Liver Pills for iron. It is also not food based so may be harder to absorb nutrients.
MTHFR Prenatal: Thorne Research
As shown above, this prenatal blend includes methylated folate instead of folic acid. It also contains a lot of iron which can be irritating for some moms and contains significantly less vitamin B6 than the label states.
This prenatal contains high levels of iron which may be irritating to some moms. It also contains methylated folate which is easier to assimilate than folic acid or even folate. However, according to Lab Door’s research, it contains 99% less Vitamin B6 as is stated on the label, so an additional B supplement may be needed. Find it here.
MTHFR Prenatals: Zahler Prenatal + DHA
These prenatals plus DHA are a great blend for pregnancy with only methylated folate, which is more easily assimilated.
The added DHA helps develop baby’s eye and brain. This blend doesn’t contain herbs, which is great for women who would prefer to avoid herbs or are taking them separately. Find them here.
MTHFR Prenatals: Dr. Ron’s
Dr. Ron’s – Though not a prenatal, this multivitamin contains methylated forms of B vitamins and is super high in important minerals like Calcium, Magnesium, Selenium, Iodine, and other important minerals when pregnant. It also contains antioxidants from grape seed extract.
However, this supplement is not food based and doesn’t include all of the natural co-enzymes, co-factors and bioflavonoids found in food-based vitamins and minerals. It also may be harder to absorb and cause some stomach upset. Be sure to take with food.
Finally, it does not contain vitamin A or iron, two important nutrients when pregnant.
Create your own prenatal vitamins
Another option would be to create your own prenatal based on your particular biological needs.
Some moms do blood and/or hair tissue mineral analysis to see specifically which nutrients they may need more of and which minerals they don’t need to supplement with. For example, getting too much copper may deplete some of your zinc stores since these minerals counterbalance each other. Obviously, not everyone can afford or access this kind of personalized testing but hopefully this will be the medical norm one day.
Some important things to include if you do create your own is a good trace mineral supplement that includes magnesium, iodine, zinc, iron as well as vitamins A, D, C, K, and an excellent B supplement. It’s always a good idea to include a good probiotic for gut health. By boosting your good bacteria levels, you may ward off things like Group B Strep and thrush when breastfeeding. You may also help colonize your baby with the best bacteria possible, which can affect her health for the rest of her life.
Super nutrient-dense foods
Some foods are so nutrient-dense, they can help supplement your diet with high levels or vitamins and minerals. Examples include raw cod liver oil for vitamin A & D, natural brewer’s yeast for B vitamins, beef liver for iron, zinc and copper, farmer grass-fed dairy for calcium, shrimp and certain seaweeds for iodine, fresh leafy greens for folate, 2 egg yolks for choline, Brazil nuts for selenium, etc. Naturally fermented sauerkraut is a wonderful source of vitamin C as well as contains good bacteria for the gut. Be sure to include these foods regularly in your diet and avoid junk food.
Is cod liver oil safe?
There are some concerns around vitamin A during pregnancy. While some birth defects have been associated with vitamin A, those studies assessed the effects of large amounts of the synthetic form of vitamin A, versus what is naturally found in cod liver oil and beef liver.
Women have been eating liver and cod liver oil (and giving it to their kids) for thousands of years, many times under their doctor’s orders, and these foods have nourished baby’s development and restored mom’s nutritional stores. Studies suggest cod liver oil could be great for a variety of ailments from arthritis to cognitive performance. It only makes sense that those potential benefits would continue during pregnancy. Of course, as with anything, check with your midwife or OB-GYN to see what’s best for you during your pregnancy.
Good for mama, good for baby
No matter which road you take with your prenatal, the important thing is to flood your body with a cross-spectrum of nutrients through supplements and diet. This is especially true if it is your second, third, or fourth pregnancies, when nutritional reserves may be lower than the first time around.
If you plan on breastfeeding, and hopefully you are, many midwives will recommend continuing on your prenatal for the entire duration of breastfeeding. In fact, since 50% of pregnancies are unplanned, all women of childbearing age might consider taking a prenatal vitamin.
Take the extra time and expense to feed yourself well during these critical child-bearing years. It will pay off with greater health and vitality for you and family!
How about YOU?
Which prenatal did you take while pregnant? Did you feel good on? Share with us!