Many women benefit from taking a multivitamin to make up for what vitamins and minerals may be lacking in their diet. For some women, however, there may be an advantage to choosing a particular type of multivitamin: a prenatal. Prenatals have benefits for more than just pregnant women, as they can prepare a woman nutritionally for an eventual pregnancy down the road.
Prenatals vs. Multivitamins
Prenatal vitamin formulas are not the same as those of a standard multivitamin, even if the multivitamin is designed specifically for women. Pregnant women need almost twice as much iron and folic acid as the average woman, which is reflected in the contents of the typical prenatal vitamin. While the average woman can get away with less, pregnant women need more of these two nutrients to prevent complications such as pregnancy-related anemia and birth defects related to the brain and spinal cord.
Getting Enough Folic Acid
The main reason women may wish to consider a prenatal even if they are not pregnant is for the extra folic acid. All women of childbearing age should take a supplement with at least 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, says the Office on Women's Health. Those who are trying to get pregnant should consider taking up to 800 micrograms. The Centers for Disease Control states that you should not take more than 1,000 micrograms of folic acid, unless your doctor recommends that you do so. During early pregnancy, folic acid can prevent birth defects caused by problems during neural tube formation. These include paralysis and brain damage. In this situation your doctor may prescribe a higher dose which is typically only found in specialized supplements, such as prenatals.
An Argument for Early Prenatals
You can wait and take a prenatal once you find out you are pregnant, but you may miss out on key developmental stages by that time. The baby’s neural tube develops during the first month of pregnancy, when you may still be unaware that you are with child. By the time you know you are pregnant, you may have missed the short neural tube window. The Office on Women's Health recommends that women who are actively trying to conceive start taking prenatal vitamins as early as three months in advance. Those who could become pregnant may also choose a prenatal over a multivitamin, as Cleveland Clinic estimates around half of all pregnancies are not pre-planned.
Considerations for Prenatals
If you wish to add a prenatal vitamin to your regimen, check with your doctor, especially if you are taking other vitamin supplements. It is possible to overdo certain vitamins and minerals if you take multiple supplements and eat fortified foods, according to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Even if you plan to become pregnant, taking too much of certain supplements may actually harm you or your baby, especially for vitamins that are stored in the body. If you are not sure whether a prenatal is the right choice for you, talk with your doctor. While taking prenatals while not pregnant won't hurt you, it also won't give you any advantage over getting your vitamins and minerals through non-prenatal supplements.
- National Institute of Child Health and Human Development: Nutrition
- Cleveland Clinic: Prenatal Vitamins
- Office on Women's Health: Folic Acid Fact Sheet
- Centers for Disease Control: Folic Acid -- Frequently Asked Questions and Answers
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: Dietary Supplements -- What You Need To Know