What are prenatal vitamins and supplements and should you be taking them?

What are prenatal vitamins and supplements and should you be taking them?

What are vitamins and supplements?

Oftentimes, vitamins and supplements are interchangeably used and this can create some confusion. So, let's simplify it: Vitamins are naturally occurring nutrients that can be absorbed through the food we eat or in the form of pills, powder, or liquids. Vitamin D, B19, B12 are some common and important vitamins we need for our bodily functions. Women with PCOS are often found to be deficient in these vitamins.

On the other hand, supplements are synthetically prepared vitamins or minerals, or they can have a combination of both vitamins and minerals as well.

What are prenatal vitamins and why are they important?

The importance of prenatal vitamins stems from the need to maintain necessary levels of all nutrients and vitamins in the woman's body to allow for easier conception, healthy pregnancy, and development of the baby. Prenatal vitamins include all the essential nutrients that are necessary for women in their journey to conceive so as to up the chances of their pregnancy, it can be continued through the course of the pregnancy and postpartum depending on their body's nutritional status.

💊 Prenatal vitamins are necessary for all the above-mentioned reasons but are in no way to be treated as substitutes for a healthy and nutritious diet.

Talk to your doctors and medical professionals before you start taking prenatal vitamins. These are the common ones that you can look for:

1. Folates

Prenatal folic acid, a form of folate, is known to be very important in supporting fetal neurodevelopment. Folate is a natural form of vitamin B9, is water-soluble, and can be found in several food sources. The recommended level of folates is between 400 -800 micrograms daily and this can help prevent birth defects such as spina bifida or when the spine and spinal cord do not develop properly.

Food sources: Dark green leafy vegetables

2. Iron

Iron is a critical element needed for developing hemoglobin, a protein in blood cells necessary to shuttle oxygen to organs and tissues. During pregnancy, the amount of blood increases significantly and you need at least twice the normal levels of iron to support this extra volume. To avoid an iron deficiency during your pregnancy, it is recommended to have 27mgs of iron daily. This can be achieved through a combination of iron-rich food sources and prenatal vitamins.

Food sources: Pulses, meat, poultry, organ meat, green leaves

💊 Protein-rich foods are also usually iron-rich.

3. Vitamin D and calcium

Vitamin D and calcium work together to aid the fetal development of muscles, bones, and teeth. Vitamin D is known to help and improve the body's ability to absorb calcium. The recommended level in pregnant women for calcium is 1,000 milligrams and for Vitamin D is 600 international units. However, it might be very difficult to get the required levels of calcium from supplements alone, and hence it is recommended to pair it with calcium-rich food sources. Another factor to remember is that calcium can block the absorption of iron and hence it might not be included in prenatal vitamins. Therefore, speak with your doctor to help you ascertain your sources, especially if you have any allergies, tolerances issues, or dietary restrictions.

Food sources: Dairy, ragi, small fish.

4. Vitamin A and C

Vitamin A  is essential for the development of the spine, heart, and eyes. However, an excess of vitamin A can also lead to birth defects, so ensure you consume within the required levels (750-3000mcg). Vitamin C on the other hand can aid tissue repair and wound healing and assist with the fetal development of bones and muscles.

A pregnant woman holding out vitmains and pills.
If you are planning on getting pregnant, taking prenatal supplements is a great way to be proactive about your fertility

5. Omega-3 fatty acids and selenium

Omega -3 fatty acids are critical for fetal brain development and associated with better cardiovascular health later on in life. Selenium is an important antioxidant that you need during pregnancy for its role in thyroid function and immunity. You need to consume 60mg of selenium daily and it is recommended to try and fulfill this requirement through your diet.

Food sources for selenium: Brazil nuts, eggs, chicken, fish, whole grain bread

6. Zinc and Vitamin E

Zinc is important for the development of the embryo and is known to reduce the risk of preterm births. In addition to this, during pregnancy, it can help improve immunity, tissue growth, and maintenance, and heal wounds. For the fetus, it is essential for cell growth and brain development. The recommended levels are 11-12 mg for pregnant women and 8mg for women who are trying to conceive.

Vitamin E, an antioxidant, plays an important role in maternal and fetal health and helps in metabolic function. A deficiency of vitamin E can lead to higher risks of pre-eclampsia and affect the weight of the baby. The recommended levels are 15mg daily.

7. Magnesium

Magnesium is an essential nutrient that helps in the regulation of body temperature and protein synthesis. During pregnancy, it can reduce the chances of pre-eclampsia and increase fetal weight. Magnesium is usually widely found in normal diets and consumed through legumes, dairy products, and vegetables. The required levels are 350mg daily.


In addition to these, it is often recommended to wean yourself off any caffeine, including chocolate in the preconception and pregnancy period. This is because research has shown that more than 200-300 milligrams of caffeine per day may reduce fertility by 27 percent. Additionally, caffeine hinders the body’s ability to absorb iron and calcium.

When should you start taking prenatal supplements?

If you are planning on getting pregnant, taking prenatal supplements is a great way to be proactive about your fertility. If you are already pregnant, you can decide which of these supplements you need to take depending on the advice of your doctor. This is to ensure that you do not consume more than the required levels which might be harmful.

Prenatal vitamins can also cause some side effects such as constipation, skin and hair changes, or even some aches, and pains. If you do experience any of these, consult with your doctor immediately.


  1. Chen, H., Qian, N., Yan, L., & Jiang, H. (2018). Role of serum vitamin A and E in pregnancy. Experimental and therapeutic medicine, 16(6), 5185–5189. https://doi.org/10.3892/etm.2018.6830
  2. Kominiarek, M. A., & Rajan, P. (2016). Nutrition Recommendations in Pregnancy and Lactation. The Medical clinics of North America, 100(6), 1199–1215. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mcna.2016.06.004
  3. Hovdenak N, Haram K. Influence of mineral and vitamin supplements on pregnancy outcome. Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 2012 Oct;164(2):127-32. doi: 10.1016/j.ejogrb.2012.06.020. Epub 2012 Jul 6. PMID: 22771225.
  4. Palacios C, Kostiuk LK, Peña-Rosas JP. Vitamin D supplementation for women during pregnancy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2019 Jul 26;7(7):CD008873. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD008873.pub4. PMID: 31348529; PMCID: PMC6659840.
  5. Wilson, R. L., Gummow, J. A., McAninch, D., Bianco‐Miotto, T., & Roberts, C. T. (2018). Vitamin and mineral supplementation in pregnancy: evidence to practice. Journal of Pharmacy Practice and Research, 48(2), 186-192.
  6. Zarean, E., & Tarjan, A. (2017). Effect of Magnesium Supplement on Pregnancy Outcomes: A Randomized Control Trial. Advanced biomedical research, 6, 109. https://doi.org/10.4103/2277-9175.213879

Written by Sharanya Menon

Content and community lead at Uvi Health.
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