Prenatal vitamins

Originally Published: January 7, 2011
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Is it safe to be taking prenatal vitamins when you're not pregnant or planning on getting pregnant?

Dear Reader,

In today's world of advanced medicine, the multivitamin aisle may be an intimidating place. Broadening your knowledge on different types of vitamins can help you choose the vitamin that best fits your sex, age, reproductive health, and specific medical needs. Prenatal vitamins contain higher amounts of specific nutrients that are vital for both the mother and the developing fetus. While prenatal vitamins may be safe for their intended users, they may not be suitable if you are not pregnant or planning to become pregnant. 

Rather than reaching straight for prenatal vitamins, try using multivitamins that are tailored to your sex, age, and medical needs. Prenatal vitamins typically contain higher amounts of vitamins and minerals than is recommended for a healthy, non-pregnant, adult (or an adult who is not planning to become pregnant). Here are some important points to consider:

  • Prenatal vitamins contain about 27 milligrams of iron, which helps the mother and the baby's blood carry oxygen. However, this is much higher than the recommended 8 to 18 milligrams per day for adults, depending on age. Iron buildup in the body can cause constipation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and in rare cases, death.
  • Prenatal vitamins contain only 200 to 300 milligrams of calcium because they are intended to supplement calcium already received in the diet. Men and women typically need 1000 to 1200 milligrams of calcium. It is not recommended to rely on prenatal vitamins for your calcium needs. Calcium during pregnancy can prevent a new mother from losing her own bone density, as the fetus uses the mineral for bone growth.
  • Folic acid is critical in preventing serious birth defects in the developing fetus, including spina bifida and anencephaly. Prenatal vitamins contain about 1000 micrograms of folate or folic acid per day — this is more than double the 400 micrograms per day requirement for healthy women and men.

There is a common myth that prenatal supplements promote thicker hair and stronger nails. Folate, vitamin B-12, iron, and biotin are all vitamins that can help improve the quality of one's hair and nails. While these vitamins are contained in abundant amounts within prenatal vitamins, they can also be purchased separately for individuals who wish to obtain these nutrients. Moreover, a diet containing adequate protein and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables is best for vibrant and healthy hair.

Above all, it is important to remember that different types of vitamins are more suitable than others for people of different sexes, ages, reproductive needs, and health statuses. Speaking with your health provider can be helpful in gauging which vitamin supplement is best for your current lifestyle. Columbia students can make an appointment through Open Communicator or by calling Primary Care Medical Services at x4-2284.