Role of Vitamins and Minerals during Pregnancy
Vitamins and minerals are essential not only for the development of your unborn child, but also to your own health. Your baby will draw on your resources, which you need to replenish to stay healthy, move through the stages of your pregnancy and prepare for childbirth.
Whether you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, it is important to pay particular attention to your intake of essential vitamins and minerals, especially folic acid, calcium and iron, for your baby’s general development and your own continued good health during your pregnancy.
For this reason, expectant mothers are generally advised to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and ask their healthcare professional for advice about the prenatal supplement best suited to their individual needs.
Folic acid is a type of vitamin B (B9) that is essential for the normal development of the spinal column, brain and skull of the fetus in the first 28 days of pregnancy.
Deficiencies in folic acid may result in neural tube defects (NTDs), the most common of which is spina bifida. This birth defect occurs in the first few weeks of pregnancy, preventing proper closure of the neural tube. The spine is unable to develop normally, leading to improper formation or malfunctions of the spinal cord, brain or skull.
Because many women are unaware they are pregnant until the end of their first month of pregnancy, it is important to start taking an adequate daily dose of folic acid three months before you become pregnant. Sufficient folic acid intake in the first 28 days of pregnancy may help reduce the risk of neural tube malformations.
If you are planning a pregnancy or have just learned that you are pregnant, see a healthcare professional for an assessment of your overall state of health and your medical and genetic history.
- Taking the Right Dose of Folic Acid
Your healthcare professional may prescribe you a multivitamin containing a higher dose of folic acid during the first 10 to 12 weeks of pregnancy if you are in one of the following situations:
- Taking drugs that interfere with absorption (e.g. anticonvulsants)
- Alcohol abuse or smoking
- Low intake, malabsorption or gastric surgery
- Liver disease or dialysis
- Insulin-dependent diabetes
- High-risk ethnic group (Celtic, North Chinese, Sikh)
- Clinical obesity
- Folic Acid or Folate: Is There a Difference?
When you read articles about folic acid that also talk about folate, you may wonder what the difference is between the two. Folate is a type of B complex vitamin found primarily in food. Folic acid is a synthetic form used to enrich foods, and contained in vitamin supplements.
Folate is found in some green vegetables, meats and legumes. Most women of childbearing age do not get all the folate they need from food, especially if their diet does not include foods that contain either folate or folic acid, such as green vegetables (broccoli, spinach, peas, Brussels sprouts), corn, dried peas and beans, lentils, oranges, orange juice, liver and food fortified with folic-acid.
By taking a supplement that contains folic acid, women of childbearing age can increase their chances of getting enough folic acid. The health professional who assesses you will suggest how much folic acid your prenatal multivitamin should contain in order to meet your needs.
- Potential Protective Effects Against Other Congenital Malformations
For the past several years, researchers have been studying the potential effects of folic acid in protecting against other types of congenital malformations. Scientific data published to date appear to show that taking a supplement with folic acid before and during pregnancy may reduce the risk of congenital malformations of the cardiovascular system, limbs and urinary system, and of cleft lip and palate and other abnormalities, in addition to decreasing the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs), a preventive effect that has been amply demonstrated.
By taking a folic acid supplement, women of childbearing age may reduce the risk of neural tube defects like spina bifida. Talk to a qualified health professional if you have any questions.
Everyone, especially women, needs calcium for bone formation and to help with the normal development and maintenance of teeth.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women require calcium and vitamin D to maintain bone integrity. The calcium your baby needs comes from your own reserves i.e., from your nutrition and, if needed, your supplementation, which is why it is important to prevent calcium deficiency during pregnancy.
If you do not get enough calcium from food, your body will take what it needs from your bones. A prenatal supplement containing calcium may help ensure that you meet your body’s requirements.
Food sources of calcium
The best sources of calcium are milk, other dairy products, canned fish and dark green vegetables. Make sure to check food labels as some cereals, juices, soy and rice beverages, and breads are calcium-fortified.
Vitamin D helps your body to absorb calcium. Vitamin D deficiency may lead to calcium deficiency which may result in a range of problems for the mother or baby.
Food sources of vitamin D
Fish liver oil, fatty fish, and fortified milk, egg, and cereal products all contain vitamin D. Be sure to check food labels as some eggs, cheeses, yogurts, and cereals are fortified with vitamin D. Milk is vitamin D fortified.
Your healthcare professional will assess your nutritional needs and recommend vitamin and mineral supplementation to help you avoid potential calcium and vitamin D deficiencies.
Iron is an important mineral. It helps to prevent anemia caused by low iron levels in the blood. Mild anemia is common in pregnancy, but more severe iron-deficiency anemia can sometimes occur.
Your need for iron increases in pregnancy for a variety of reasons, including an increased volume of blood and fluid circulating in your blood vessels and the growth of the fetus and placenta, which stockpile iron.
Make Sure You Have Sufficient Iron Reserves Before Becoming Pregnant.
Your iron intake before pregnancy may be insufficient. It is one of the reasons why a pre-pregnancy medical consultation is so useful. If your iron stores are low or if you are anemic before pregnancy, your health professional can assess your need for a higher dose of iron.
You should know that if a mother's iron stores are depleted before pregnancy or during the first trimester, she may develop anemia in the second or third trimester. This can result in:
- Lower productivity at work.
- Decreased resistance to infection.
- Lower tolerance of blood loss during surgery or in childbirth.
You and Your Baby Need Good Stores of Iron.
If you are breastfeeding and your iron levels are low, you may feel weak and fatigued at a time when you need high energy levels to look after your newborn. Even if you have chosen not to breastfeed, you will need to replenish your iron stores, which have become depleted by the blood loss that occurred in childbirth.
An adequate intake of iron before conception and your ability to stockpile iron during pregnancy will affect your baby's iron stores.
During your pregnancy follow-up examinations, your healthcare professional will look at your history of anemia and your serum hemoglobin levels and will suggest the best course of action.
Vitamin B12 is essential for the production of red blood cells, the synthesis of genetic materials and the proper functioning of the nervous system. For it to have its full effect, it must work together with folic acid.
Impact of a Vitamin B12 Deficiency
A vitamin B12 deficiency during pregnancy will prevent folic acid from being activated. As a result, a vitamin B12 deficiency can increase the risk of neural tube defects occurring in the first 28 days of pregnancy, even if folic acid levels are adequate. A vitamin B12 deficiency can also contribute to premature birth.
Malabsorption is the most frequent cause of vitamin B12 deficiency. Insufficient vitamin B12 uptake can also create a deficiency that can be easily prevented with a healthy diet.
Sources of Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is found mainly in animal products like meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs and dairy products. Certain foods and beverages are fortified with B12. These include certain cereals, soy-based products and rice-based drinks.
Pregnant women following a vegan or vegetarian diet are therefore at greater risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency before pregnancy. Taking a prenatal multivitamin before conception helps to ensure there is an adequate intake of vitamin B12 during pregnancy.
Omega-3 (EPA and DHA) fatty acids
Omega-3 (EPA and DHA) fatty acid intake during pregnancy is important for your baby’s healthy growth and development. In fact, low DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) levels have been shown to limit infant development, including language development and understanding as well as eyesight.
It is important to obtain omega-3 (EPA and DHA) fatty acids directly from your diet. They are found mainly in oily fish (salmon, trout, sardines, arctic char, herring and mackerel), fish oil and other marine sources such as algae.
Is There a Need for Omega-3 (EPA and DHA) Fatty Acid Supplements?
Pregnant women looking to take omega-3 (EPA and DHA) supplements should note that at the present time, there is a lack of reliable data to justify supplementation. It has also been demonstrated that only supplements with EPA/DHA or DHA increase the DHA level in the blood of the mother or fetus.
If you want to take an omega-3 (EPA and DHA) supplement during your pregnancy, discuss it with a health professional. These supplements may not be indicated for certain pregnant women who have a risk of bleeding. Cod liver oil, moreover, is to be avoided completely. Fish oil contains a high quantity of vitamin A, which could be toxic for the fetus.
Worried About Mercury Content in Fish?
Fish contain many essential nutrients for optimal health, including the omega-3 (EPA and DHA) fats. However, some fish should be avoided or limited during pregnancy and breastfeeding because they may contain high levels of mercury. Click here for more information on fish that are safe for consumption. Please note that fish rich in omega-3 (EPA and DHA), such as salmon, trout, sardines, arctic char, herring and mackerel, are generally considered to have lower mercury levels.
Why you need Zinc during pregnancy
Getting enough zinc is particularly important for the rapid cell growth that occurs during pregnancy. Zinc is necessary for the production, repair, and functioning of DNA – the body's genetic blueprint and a basic building block of cells. This essential mineral also helps support your immune system, maintain your sense of taste and smell, and heal wounds.
Deficiencies in North America are rare, but studies have linked a zinc deficiency to miscarriage, toxemia, low birth weight, and other problems during pregnancy, labor, and delivery.
Zinc is the building block of life
Zinc is present in many foods and plays an essential role in the construction of your baby’s cells and DNA during pregnancy.
A healthy intake of zinc as part of a well-balanced diet is crucial during pregnancy. It is needed for cell division and tissue growth and to support the baby’s normal development.
Zinc is also found in high concentrations in the brain, and it is important for normal brain function, which contributes to all future learning and development.
Protecting YOUR health during pregnancy
During pregnancy, your immune system is naturally suppressed, leaving you more vulnerable to infection. Zinc is one of the nutrients that provide some extra immune support, making it not only important for your baby’s health but your own as well.
Maintaining a healthy intake of zinc throughout your pregnancy has also been shown to lower the risk of premature birth.
How much zinc do you need during pregnancy?
Despite having such an important role in your baby’s development, it is recommended to take 7mg of zinc per day, the same as it would be if you weren’t pregnant. However, your need rises significantly while breastfeeding, increasing to 13mg per day until your baby is 4 months old, and falling to 9.5mg per day beyond that. Present in many foods, these amounts should be easy to get from a well-balanced diet.
Food sources of zinc
Good sources of zinc include meat, fish, oysters (must be well cooked during pregnancy), shellfish, shrimp, crab, turkey, chicken and ham. Zinc is also present in dairy products (milk, yoghurt, cheeses-especially ricotta), beans (green, kidney, baked), peanut butter, nuts, tofu, lentils, eggs, breads, fortified cereals, pasta, rice, wheat germ, bran, onions, ginger and sunflower seeds.
Should you take a zinc supplement?
Your prenatal vitamin supplement should provide the zinc you need if you aren’t already getting enough from your diet. Most people who eat meat get plenty of zinc from a reasonably well-balanced diet. However, vegetarians and vegans may not get enough zinc from food alone as it is harder to absorb zinc from plants.
Make sure to get enough zinc during your pregnancy as the rapid growth of tissue and DNA that’s taking place in your baby’s body relies on a good supply of zinc during pregnancy. Zinc can be found in many foods and plays an essential role in the development of your baby’s cells and DNA during pregnancy. Zinc is also important during this time to protect you from infections.
In addition to folic acid, iron, calcium and zinc, many other vitamins and minerals are important for your health and for the development of your child. Many of these vitamins and minerals are found in a well-balanced diet but sometimes you might need to take additional essential vitamins and minerals according to your food habits or your medical history.
Your healthcare professional will assess your nutritional needs and recommend supplementation that will help you avoid any vitamin or mineral deficiencies.