Taking Supplements During Pregnancy
From the moment you and your partner make the decision to get pregnant you will want to make sure that you are taking the best possible care of your body. Diet and exercise make a big difference to a woman's pregnancy and to the unborn child. It can be beneficial to include supplements into your diet but you must make sure that you are aware of what is and isn't safe before you do so. Do not assume that all supplements will enhance your or your baby's health as there are a number of things that are dangerous to take. Above all, you must remember that the best way to get the balance of nutrients that you need is to eat a well-balanced diet. Supplements can play their part in this but they cannot be a substitute for nutritious food.
Talk to your doctor or midwife before taking any supplements
Every pregnancy is different, and while there are certain supplements that are generally considered to be suitable for most pregnant women there are always exceptions. Speak to your doctor or midwife as soon as you begin trying to conceive or when you find out that you are pregnant to ensure that you only take supplements that are safe for your pregnancy.
Folic acid before and during pregnancy
As with all vitamins, you should aim to consume as much of your folic acid as possible through your diet, but generally it is recommended to take it as a supplement as well. The guidelines state that you should take 400 micrograms per day while you are trying to conceive and once you are pregnant, your doctor or midwife will advise you if your pregnancy would benefit from a greater dose. It is really important that you take folic acid for the first 12 weeks of your pregnancy but it is usually fine to continue taking throughout the rest of your pregnancy too. Folic acid is known to help prevent neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida.
Vitamin D during pregnancy
Vitamin D is very important during pregnancy, and along with folic acid, midwives and GPs usually recommended taking a supplement to ensure that you consume enough during pregnancy. The guidelines state that you should take a supplement of 10 micrograms of vitamin D daily throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding. Vitamin D is important for regulating the amount of calcium and phosphate in your body, which in turn look after your bones and teeth. Consuming enough vitamin D through your diet can be difficult as it is only present in a small group of foods (such as oily fish and fortified breakfast cereals). Most of the vitamin D that we have is generated from sunlight on our skin, but it is hard to monitor how much of this we get. Therefore it's wise to take vitamin D as a supplement to ensure that you are getting a high enough dose. Do not take this as a cue to throw out your sun cream, however! The amount of sunlight that you need is actually less than it would take to tan or burn your skin so you must still take care to protect yourself.
I heard I should take Omega 3, can I take any fish oil supplement?
These days it is widely accepted that Omega 3 has important health benefits for adults and children alike. Taken during pregnancy it is thought to play a big part in the development of the baby's brain, their retinas and their nervous system. It is also linked to a reduced rate of postnatal depression, pre-eclampsia and premature delivery of babies.
Most people are aware that Omega 3 is primarily found in fish and fish oil, however, that is not to say that all fish oil supplements are safe to take. Supplements aside, you should try to include oily fish regularly in your diet. These include salmon, sardines and mackerel. However, it is also beneficial to take an Omega 3 supplement during your pregnancy, provided your doctor and midwife agree. The important thing to check is that the supplement is not made from the liver of the fish - such as cod liver oil. Fish livers can have high levels of vitamin A which can be dangerous to take during pregnancy. Look for a fish oil supplement that has been made from the body of the fish (rather than the liver) and always check with your doctor or pharmacist that it is safe to take during pregnancy.
Taking iron supplements during pregnancy
There is usually no need to take iron supplements provided that you are getting enough iron through your diet. Iron rich foods include lean meat, green leafy vegetables and dried fruits. Your midwife will advise you if your iron levels become low, and may then advise that you take an iron supplement. You will probably also be advised to take a supplement if you are already known to be anaemic prior to your pregnancy.
Taking calcium supplements during pregnancy
Calcium is another one that you should consume enough of in your day to day diet. We need calcium to maintain strong bones and teeth. The main sources of calcium are dairy products, fish where the bones are edible such as sardines and fortified breakfast cereals. It is also found in a range of fruit and vegetables. If you feel that you need to consume additional calcium via a supplement then discuss this with your midwife or GP first.
Taking a multivitamin during pregnancy
For most pregnant women there is no need to take a multivitamin supplement as they tend to contain more vitamins than you actually need and they can be expensive. The only vitamins that you are advised to consume via a supplement are folic acid and vitamin D (as described above). All of your other required vitamins and minerals should be consumed via a well-balanced diet. If you are advised to take a multivitamin, then make sure that you take one that is recommended for use during pregnancy. Never ever double up on the dose of multivitamins, even if it is approved for pregnant women, as some vitamins can be dangerous when consumed at high levels.
Supplements to avoid during pregnancy
Avoid any supplement containing pre-formed vitamin A while you are pregnant. Vitamin A is important for the development of your baby but there are some forms that are unsafe. For this reason always ensure that your supplement is safe to take during pregnancy and never assume that it is okay to double-up on the dosage of any supplement, even if it is approved for pregnant women. Always check the details of any supplement, for example, a fish oil supplement may not necessarily make it obvious in the main part of the label that it contains vitamin A. Always read the breakdown of nutritional content on the back of the box.
Always discuss supplements with your doctor or midwife, and don't be afraid to ask the advice of the pharmacist as they will also be able to advise you on which supplements that you should avoid during pregnancy.