Should I Be Taking Prenatal Vitamins When I’m Not Pregnant? Health Professionals Sound Off
You've probably heard that prenatal vitamins can yield beautifying benefits by strengthening nails, thickening hair, and contributing to a glowing complexion (maybe one of your friends has even sworn by this "secret"). And while these perks certainly sound tempting, before ditching your regular multi, it's important to know: should you take a prenatal vitamin if you're not pregnant?
Although not as buzzworthy as some other health trends (here's looking at you, mushroom coffee and CBD gummies), prenatal vitamins are sometimes taken by women who aren't expecting but are seeking the nutrient boost thought to enhance outward appearance. But do those extra vitamins and minerals really improve skin, hair, and nail growth — and more importantly, can they cause harm if taken improperly?
Ahead, doctors and health professionals weigh in on the benefits and risks of taking prenatal vitamins, as well as the best time to consider adding them to your health routine. If you (and your doc) have decided that these supplements are right for you, read on for pros, cons, and, if you're in the market, discover the cult-favorite prenatal product that amassed a waitlist of over 10,000.
(As always, consult with your doctor before adding any supplements or vitamins to your diet.)
Should You Take A Prenatal Vitamin If You're Not Pregnant?
First thing's first: According to experts, unless a baby is or may be in your near future, these supplements probably won't benefit you much. "Prenatal vitamins are formulated for women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant," explains Dr. Aastha Kalra, founding physician of Weight Zero MD. "They are high in folic acid, iron, and calcium. Aside from pregnancy, there is usually no reason to take prenatal vitamins."
The reason? "The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends 600 mcg of folic acid to prevent neural tube defects," she continues. "Similarly, iron is essential during pregnancy to prevent anemia. Prenatal vitamins contain recommended doses of these vitamins and minerals."
Exceptions To The Rule
That said, there may be an exception to the above rule. Dr. Will Cole, leading functional medicine expert, IFMCP, DC, and bestselling author of The Inflammation Spectrum and Ketotarian, says the prenatal vitamin formulation may be helpful for women who are lacking certain nutrients in their diets. "Since prenatal vitamins tend to be higher in iron and B vitamins, they can be a good option for those who are severely deficient in iron and are anemic," he explains. And while he agrees that some women may notice improvements in their hair, skin, and nails, "a biotin supplement would be a better option if you are looking to reap the beauty benefits." (Collagen powders, supplements, or bone broth rich in the stuff may do the trick, too.)
Philadelphia-based physician Dr. Charlie Seltzer also mentions that iron deficiency and/or anemia is a relatively common issue among women. "If you are a woman who has a regular menstrual cycles, make sure that your iron is checked," he recommends, noting that signs can include low energy and slow post-workout recovery time. "If you have symptoms, that may be a result of vitamin deficiencies (which could be iron or B-12 deficiencies); or, if you are at particularly high risk for a deficiency based on your health, like if you have celiac disease, get tested for those in particular and replace them if needed." In any case, seek the advice of your doc (of course), who may recommend a prenatal or a simple vitamin supplement.
Are Multivitamins Even Necessary?
That said, the pros pose the question of whether a health-conscious, non-pregnant woman who eats a balanced diet needs any sort of vitamin supplement, at all. "The question is, are multivitamins necessary?" asks Dr. Seltzer. "I think that both sides of the argument are valid, but I mostly fall on the side that you are not really hurting yourself by taking [a multivitamin] and are covering your bases in case there are any shortcomings in your diet."
On the other hand, he says, some health professionals would rather test patients for individual deficiencies, then fill in the gaps with specific supplements (as opposed to an all-around multi). "In that case, the rest of the nutrients should be made up through a balanced diet. In general, I am more likely to recommend a multivitamin to somebody with a very restricted diet [as opposed to] somebody who eats a variety of fruits and vegetables." Dr. Cole agrees that "if you are eating a nutrient-dense diet, you shouldn't need to supplement with a multivitamin."
Potential Downsides Of Prenatal Vitamins
The good news is, adding a multi or prenatal vitamin to your diet isn't likely to hurt you, barring certain medical conditions; however, that's why it's imperative to speak with your doctor before adding any kind of supplementation to your diet. After all, "there are some vitamins which can be toxic in high doses, like synthetic vitamin A," says Dr. Seltzer. Other higher-risk groups include "people with kidney or liver disease [who] may be more likely to suffer an adverse response to a multivitamin versus an otherwise healthy person." (The impaired organ function can make certain nutrients difficult to metabolize.)
As far as prenatals go, at least for those who aren't moms-to-be, the biggest downside may simply be that it's likely a waste of money. "There’s a lot of research that says there’s no upside [to taking prenatal vitamins] unless you’re pregnant," Dr. Seltzer concludes.
When To Start Taking A Prenatal Vitamin
But back to those who are "planning or thinking about getting pregnant"; Dr. Mastaneh Sharafi, RD and director of scientific affairs (nutritional sciences) for Ritual, a vitamin brand, says that implementing a regimen ahead of time is key if there's a possibility you'll conceive.* "Research shows that it takes time to reach optimal nutrient levels, and taking a prenatal vitamin at least three months before conception is ideal," she shares. "However, if you’re even thinking about trying or you’re not not trying, it’s probably a good time to start a prenatal. The first 28 days of pregnancy are important in your baby’s neural development, so there’s really no such thing as 'too soon' to start."
The Prenatal Vitamin With A Waitlist Of 10k (And What To Look For, In General)
Of course, the best vitamin for you is one that's recommended (or approved by) your doc. But if you're doing some research, it's worth learning about what products pregnant (or soon-to-be pregnant) women are flocking to.
You've may have heard about Ritual vitamins before, and this summer, the brand's Essential Prenatal sold out, then amassed a waitlist of over 10,000. So, what sets this brand apart and allowed it to achieve cult-favorite status? "Ritual includes essential nutrients: What we leave out is as important as what we put in," explains Katerina Schneider, founder and CEO of Ritual. "Our formulation philosophy is about what you need — and not overwhelming your body with anything extra. Compared to over-the-coutner prenatals, the 12 nutrients in Ritual’s prenatal are in their bioavailable and nature-identical forms (that is, what you find in food and nature)."
Other features of the vitamin include its two-in-one design, which "separates oily and dry ingredients, which eliminates the need for several different pills" (hence their cool, futuristic look); a delayed-release capsule that helps eliminate nausea (Schneider says they can even be taken on an empty stomach); and, they're vegan-certified. They're also affordable and available via subscription for $35/month.
Specific brands aside, the pros agree that it's important to look closely at ingredients when it comes to choosing a premium product. "With any sort of prenatal, you want to look at the quality and sourcing of their ingredients and avoid any unnecessary additives which could potentially negate the health benefits you are looking to obtain in the first place," warns Dr. Cole. "You should also be sure to check with your doctor to determine the best supplement and dosage for your specific health case."
"Any food-form vitamin is a solid bet," advises Dr. Seltzer. "Of course, there may be no added benefit to this, and the research is certainly mixed. Still, I would err on the side of using a whole food multivitamin because it more closely approximates what we should be doing anyway."
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.