Pregnant and postpartum women are not all the same– they eat differently, have different lifestyle and other health concerns. Therefore, they have different vitamin needs in terms of both actual vitamins and doses of the right vitamins. Unfortunately, the mass market does not recognize these differences with a slew of brands offering a singular prenatal vitamin formula. There are certain nutrients which are essential to prenatal care. These include folic acid, iron, calcium, iodine, Vitamin D3, and Omega3s. You need to cover these bases, but beyond the essentials, there are several nutrients that can be customized to an individual health and lifestyle profile. The rise of personalized vitamins focused on the prenatal category provide more options to women.
What is a personalized vitamin? There are companies that will do upfront assessments to figure out what vitamins you need. You will complete an online survey that will ask questions about diet, fitness, health background, health status, medications, demographics, and more. This data will be used to pinpoint your needs and match with you with a set of customized vitamin recommendations. There are key differences between companies in how they fulfil these needs. One group of companies will compile a pill pack of standard supplements that are sorted into daily packages. The risk with this approach is that you get overprescribed too many supplements, and the routine becomes difficult to maintain or afford. Another group of companies will offer a liquid solution, such as a “Keurig-type” machine that will blend your vitamins, or a pre-blended smoothie pouch. For many consumers, it is difficult to commit the time to blend their own vitamins, or tolerance to swallow a lumpy smoothie to get their daily vitamins. Yet another group of companies will ask for biological tests, like blood, hair, urine, or stool, or genetic tests to refine your recommendations. In many cases, the cost and privacy concerns around these methods outweigh any potential benefits of further personalization. While these methods may seem necessary, or even enticing, they typically fall short on the hard science behind the methods. Finally, there are companies that will personalize an all-in-one multivitamin formula. This approach may not offer as many pill options or range of supplementation, it often provides the most familiar experience for the customer of taking a single vitamin to help with their health. In this case, the single pill will be calibrated to your needs with customized nutrients and optimized dosing for your profile. The personalized all-in-one multivitamin may be the most sustainable and affordable approach for most consumers.
Meeting Prenatal Vitamin Needs
First, let’s cover the vitamins that all women need to establish and support a healthy pregnancy. This encompasses the mothers’ health and the baby’s health and development. Folic acid is often talked about as an essential prenatal vitamin. This is because it has been clearly established that mothers’ who do not take in sufficient amounts of folic acid tend to have babies with a much higher rate of birth defects, particularly those related to the brain and spinal cord. These babies can acquire a severely disabling problem called spina bifida, which often requires major spinal or brain surgery. The good news: this risk can almost be eliminated by taking the right amount of folic acid.
Taking the right amount of iodine in pregnancy (and immediately before and after) is also important. Iodine helps bolster the mother’s thyroid function and in turn also the baby’s thyroid. Babies who do not get adequate iodine can suffer major issues with brain development and cognitive problems. Taking the proper amount of iodine, as recommended by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is critical. However, taking too much can be harmful so caution must be used in dosing.
Iron is essential since it is what builds and fuels red blood cells. Blood cells carry oxygen to all developing cells. Pregnancy is notorious for sapping a mother of her body’s iron stores. This iron deficiency can have profound and long lasting effects causing anemia, fatigue (as if having a baby isn’t tiring enough!), thinning hair, low energy, strange cravings (think eating clay and dirt), restless legs and more. It is especially important to continue taking a multivitamin with iron after pregnancy whether you are nursing or not.
Calcium is a component of most prenatal vitamins because it is very important as an element that is involved in many chemical reactions in the body but also because it performs a role in both fetal and maternal bone health. In a pregnant mother’s body, the baby’s bone development take priority and the baby saps the mother’s calcium. Unfortunately, if the mother does not have enough calcium, the result is that it comes from her own bones. Hence, taking in enough calcium during pregnancy is imperative. While we typically recommend getting as much calcium as possible from diet, takin some calcium via a prenatal supplement is especially important during the prenatal and postnatal period (especially if nursing when calcium is also being used to create milk).
Vitamin D3 is an essential nutrient for moms and babies that is a hormone, which may surprise some people. Most of us are vitamin D deficient to varying degrees unless we take a supplement and vitamin D plays a role in myriad bodily functions, including immune health, bone development, mood, muscle strength and more. There is some suggestion that women with normal vitamin D levels may have lower rates of preterm labor and infections after delivery. This makes sense given the role of vitamin D in muscle function and immunity. Our experience is that most women benefit from varied amounts of vitamin D supplementation both before, during and after pregnancy based on a variety of factors. Vitamin D is also relevant for and in the postnatal period especially because of its role in energy, mood and more.
Lastly, Omega3s are a very important aspect of any prenatal and postnatal vitamin routine. These essential fatty acids serve a function in reducing the risk of preterm labor as well enhancing the baby’s cognitive and visual development. They are necessary for the postpartum mother because of their potential role as anti-inflammatories critical to blood clot reduction and mood elevation. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends women take supplemental Omega3s due to concerns around seafood consumption during pregnancy and potential mercury contamination. A non-fish source of Omega3s, such as algal oil, is an ideal way to avoid the potential for mercury contamination.
Embracing Variation Between Women
Now that you have met your basic pregnancy needs, it is important to understand where needs may differ. It is easy to imagine a scenario where one woman keeps a vegan diet during pregnancy, while another woman eats a diet heavy in red meat. There is clearly going to be differences in the intake of key vitamins like iron and calcium between these approaches. You can also imagine a scenario where one woman suffers from severe fatigue during pregnancy, while another woman has an active and fit pregnancy. These two states require different amounts of B-vitamins to boost energy levels. It is also certainly reasonable to envision a scenario where one pregnant woman has a preexisting condition that can be helped by vitamins, for example, migraines and chronic headaches, while another woman enters pregnancy with limited health conditions.
Personalized vitamin companies can step in and fill these divergent needs. The mass market has constrained innovation because shelf space and distribution are expensive, so it makes sense to put one bottle of prenatals on the shelf for each brand. In the emerging direct-to-consumer economy, there are no longer considerations around shelf space, and there can be a much more segmented view of the prenatal consumer. You should look for a personalized vitamin company that you trust. Physician credentials are important, and check to make sure the company has board-certified physicians involved in the formula development process. Also, try to be realistic around which solutions that you can afford and sustain. Once you have checked the boxes on the essential prenatal vitamin needs, look for products that will recognize your unique profile and get you a tailored product for your body. It’s in the best interest of you and your baby.