Prenatal vitamins are one of the most common supplements that women use at some point during their lifetime. Should these nutrients be used exclusively by women? When should you start taking a prenatal vitamin? Are there some nutrients that are more important than others?
The concept of using a prenatal vitamin is to ensure that your growing baby receives all the nutrients he or she needs to develop and grow into a healthy newborn, ensuring that continues into lifelong health.
I would argue that this process starts before conception even occurs. For a healthy embryo to develop, it is ideal to have both a high quality egg and sperm meet. When we see concerns in either the egg or the sperm, this can either have a negative impact on the ability for us to conceive or if we do conceive, have a negative impact on the health of our developing baby.
This is the reason I highly encourage both parents to begin making changes to optimize their health at least 3-6 months before getting pregnant. These are 2 important points that are often overlooked or not spoken about when it comes to conception. If there are nutrient deficiencies during this preconception time, the health of dad’s-to-be sperm as well as mom’s-to-be egg and uterine lining can be impacted.
What nutrients are particularly important during this time?
Omega 3 fatty acids play an important role during pregnancy to help with brain development. They also support healthy uterine lining, cervical mucous production, sperm development, along with helping to regulate inflammation (which plays a role in implantation and pain). Most North Americans are deficient in omega 3 fatty acids, so this is something I often discuss with patients. I will either recommend increasing dietary sources of omega 3s, such as eating more fish – salmon, cod, mackerel, sardines and trout which are great sources of omega 3 fatty acids. If you are eating three servings of these types of fish per week, you are likely doing well with your intake. If you aren’t, then you likely need to supplement to get your omega 3s into a good range.
B12 is an important nutrient for genetic replication and development of the nervous system. It plays a role in both parents. A deficiency in men can have negative impacts on sperm health and a female deficiency can impact overall fertility, and be a contributor to pregnancy loss. B12 in either methylcobalamin or hydroxocobalamin are more easily utilized by the body, so make sure to check the label of any supplement you are using for one of these formats.
Folic acid is important in early pregnancy, as it plays a big role in the formation of your baby’s neural tube. There is research showing a deficiency of folate can impact both egg and sperm quality. There is approximately 20% of the population, that because of a genetic variant don’t convert synthetic folic acid into its active form called 5-methyletrahydrofolate (or 5-MTHFR for short). If you don’t know your genetic status, I typically will recommend a prenatal for mom-to-be and multi vitamin for dad-to-be that contains 5-MTHFR which removes the worry from those that don’t convert synthetic folic effectively.
Iron is also an important nutrient for women trying to conceive and during pregnancy. If you are iron deficient it can impact your ability to ovulate and possibly be a reason that you don’t conceive. Iron is most easily absorbed from animal products so often I will find my vegan and vegetarian patients are more prone to deficiency. If you run your blood work and find you are low in iron, then supplementation is generally recommended. It is generally recommended that during pregnancy you take a prenatal containing iron as your requirement for iron increases substantially.
The type of iron consumed in a supplement form though can often be a major deterrent as some forms can cause constipation or nausea. It is the most common reason women stop taking their prenatal vitamin. Iron in a heme or amino acid chelate form such as iron glycinate is more easily absorbed and generally causes less constipation and stomach irritation compared to ferrous fumarate form.
Zinc is a nutrient that is relevant for our dads-to-be as it is involved in sperm development and supports healthy testosterone levels. It also plays a role in immune function, so we want to ensure proper amounts in both parents-to-be. Zinc, in a citrate or picolinate form, has better absorption rates.
Choline is a nutrient that is also important for baby’s brain development. There was a study that found almost 50% of women of childbearing age were deficient. For this reason, I generally will recommend a prenatal vitamin that contains choline. Many prenatal vitamins do not contain choline, so make sure you check your label. Eggs are a great food source of choline making them a great choice for this nutrient.
There is a wealth of other nutrients important for both egg and sperm health as well as for developing baby, but the above suggestions give you a general idea of where to start.
For more information on nutrients and research fertility sign up for the Enhance Fertility newsletter at enhancefertility.ca and follow us on Instagram and Facebook @enhanceferility.