- Women's Health
Prenatal Vitamins: Importance of prenatal health and its role in preventing serious health conditions.
Poll on Prenatal Health
How often do you think about prenatal health?
Why The Analysis?
I usually don’t like to express my feelings on medical topics as delicate as this. It kind of makes me think that I’m doing something taboo, like mixing science with religion. But, why wouldn’t I research medical advice that might better my future children’s health, and not just my own?
Taking care to keep good prenatal health may help to prevent conditions such as fetal alcohol syndrome, low birthweight, and even autism. Let me also submit my disclaimer right here and now: I am not a doctor and the information in this hub should not be taken as medical advice. Always consult with your doctor about prenatal health or any other concerns you may have.
What prompted me to research this topic was a recent claim published by the CDC revealing that young women, unless taking birth control, should not drink alcohol. It kind of stopped me in my tracks and made me think: if my Saturday night libations are putting my future offspring at risk, what other aspects of my life should I be analyzing?
Healthy Lifestyle Choices Before Family Planning
If you have read any of the other posts on my blog, I recently took a liking to the Paleo diet. However, my experience with it wasn’t that grand. I can’t totally bash it though- I did lose about 5 pounds and felt pretty good, but I didn’t follow the diet 100%. Probably my first mistake, but it is beside the point. What really made me stop and rethink about my daily nutrition was that CDC article I just mentioned. I’m not an alcoholic, but I do like to relax on the weekends with a few cocktails. If those drinks could cause me problems down the road, what other aspects of consumption could be putting me (and my future family) at risk?
I am not trying to claim that the Paleo diet is unhealthy. The Paleo diet is restrictive in its elimination of grains and dairy – two nutrients that have notable roles in a round and healthy diet. Would eliminating these “good” nutrients affect my unborn children? How does my daily diet take in to play during family planning?
All young women who are planning to conceive are advised by either their OBGYN or primary care doctor to begin taking a prenatal vitamin well before starting the process of “trying.” This is to ensure the body is receiving nutrients which are crucial to child development from the very beginning of fertilization. The vitamins, continue through the pregnancy to aid in the development of a healthy fetus. (My second disclaimer: Do not take vitamins or medication that are not prescribed by your doctor, and only take the dosage prescribed.)
Medical Terms and Definitions
Here are some terms and definitions worth observing to help you better understand studies and medical jargon used in any portion of this hub:
- Etiology- the cause or causes of a disease or abnormal condition. 2. A branch of medical science dealing with the causes and origin or diseases.
- Epigenetics- the study of how genes produce their effect on the phenotype of the organism.
- homocysteine- an amino acid…that appears to be associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease when occurring at high levels in the blood.
- gene- a specific sequence of nucleotides in DNA or RNA that is located usually on a chromosome and that is the functional unit of inheritance controlling the transmission and expression of one or more traits by specifying the structure of a particular polypeptide and especially a protein or controlling the function of other genetic material- called also determinant, determiner, factor
- genotype- 1. Type species 2. all or part of the genetic constitution of an individual or group
- methylation- introduction of the methyl group into a chemical compound, especially: DNA methylation
- methyl- an alkyl group CH, that is derived from methane by removal of one hydrogen atom
The above are all taken from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
- one-carbon metabolism-One-carbon metabolism is a network of biological reactions that plays critical role in DNA methylation and DNA synthesis, and in turn, facilitates the cross-talk between genetic and epigenetic processes. (
*The below is not in the hub, but I found the research of a gene's job(s) quite interesting:
- COMT gene in children-"'catechol-O-methyltransferase.' The COMT gene provides instructions for making an enzyme called catechol-O-methyltransferase.In the brain, catechol-O-methyltransferase helps break down certain chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. These chemicals conduct signals from one nerve cell to another. Catechol-O-methyltransferase is particularly important in an area at the front of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which organizes and coordinates information from other parts of the brain. This region is involved with personality, planning, inhibition of behaviors, abstract thinking, emotion, and working (short-term) memory. To function efficiently, the prefrontal cortex requires signaling by neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine. Catechol-O-methyltransferase helps maintain appropriate levels of these neurotransmitters in this part of the brain."
What Is A Prenatal Vitamin?
Prenatal vitamins are consumed by women who are either pregnant or trying to conceive. They differ from multi-vitamins because they hold vitamins crucial to development of fetuses during pregnancy.
“Each tablet or capsule contains essential vitamins and minerals, including iron, calcium, and zinc. Most prenatal vitamins also contain folic acid, which helps to prevent anemia in the mother and birth defects in the baby" (Prenatal vitamins, oral. RelayClinical Education. Feb 2012 v2012 i1 pNA.).
Important components of prenatal vitamins include:
- B12 - promotes good brain and mental health.
- Folic Acid - development of the neural tubes, which can promote healthy brain and spinal cord function.
- Iron - promotes healthy red blood cells and also aids in healthy growth and development of the fetus.
It has also been noted that taking prenatal vitamins can promote healthy birth weight in babies.
However, the vitamin does not serve as a substitute for a healthy lifestyle. There are other factors that can seriously affect the development of an unborn child, even before fertilization.
What The CDC Says
Referring to the CDC’s claims, drinking alcohol before pregnancy can place a risk on fetal brain development. The brain is one of the first organs of a fetus that start to develop. Most women do not realize they are pregnant until a few weeks after conception. Because of this, regular drinkers who continue to drink through these first few weeks could possibly put the brain of their developing children at risk of things such as fetal alcohol syndrome. If you have been following the news, this is why the ZIKA virus is most harmful if women contract it during the beginning stages of pregnancy. Now, I know ZIKA vs. nutrients is not an equal comparison (one is controlled, the other is not), but it just serves as an example of the importance of healthy nutrition during the beginning stages of pregnancy for fetal brain development.
A USA today article by Liz Szabo states “The American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association, criticized the CDC's advice. "The CDC’s view on alcohol is incredibly puritanical," said Sarah Longwell, the group's managing director. "The more prohibitionist the agency’s stance, the less seriously the public will take its message." I do believe this is true. By making such a large claim, most may not take it seriously. I remember a while back, during a casual conversation in a group of women, a pregnancy announcement came up. The teller of the story relayed that the pregnant woman was concerned because a few weeks before, she had gotten “completely wasted.” The doctor brushed it off and let her know it didn’t matter…and not to worry. It is also stories like this that might make women question the seriousness of the CDC’s claims.
“The CDC estimates 3.3 million women between ages 15 to 44 are at risk of exposing a developing fetus to alcohol because they drink, are sexually active and not using birth control. Even when women are actively trying to get pregnant, three in four continue drinking after they stop using birth control, according to the CDC report.”
Continuing bad habits during family planning can lead to serious risks down the road. This is why taking a prenatal vitamin even before conception is important.
Prenatal Vitamins Are Not One-Size-Fits-All
Some vitamins that might not be present in prenatal vitamins- calcium, vitamin d, omega-3 fatty acids. Vitamins A, E, Zinc, and copper may also be beneficial for prenatal care. Make sure that the prenatal vitamin you have suits your own personal needs.
Also, prenatal vitamins should be taken in addition to a healthy diet. They are in no way a substitute for all essential vitamins your baby will need for a healthy development.
Again, consulting with your doctor is best to find the right fit for you. Your doctor will also be able to suggest dietary changes to ensure that you receive other nutrients beneficial to your baby’s health. Take a look at the video below to view the growth of a fetus in the womb. (Warning: there is no real dialogue, just moving images in a "time lapse" manner. However, it is still a pretty amazing reminder that every second of family planning counts).
What Does This Mean For Our Daily Diets?
Whether you follow a fad diet, a hugely restrictive diet, or an unhealthy diet, your diet may be a factor in determining your future child(ren’s) health.
Will losing a significant amount of weight before conception put future offspring at risk? What types of diets are not encouraged before conception? What nutrients are necessary before conception to aid in a healthy pregnancy?
These are all personal questions that must be addressed between yourself and your doctor. You should analyze your dietary health now and decide what changes you need to make to promote lifelong prosperity. Also, take a look at your goals. Determine why you are dieting in the first place and if the goals you have set for yourself are healthy. Make sure you are not bordering unhealthy decisions to get to a goal weight just because. If you are dieting because you are overweight and are at risk for heart attack or other health conditions, that is one thing. If you are starving yourself, that’s completely different.
“Dutch women who went hungry during the second world war…gave birth to small babies…yet when [those babies] had children of their own [despite a normal diet their whole lives], they too were undersized.” (Source: Cohen, Philip. "You are what your mother ate: a few genes vital for health and development might be controlled by what your mother or grand mother ate before she even knew she was pregnant. (Frontiers: research news and innovation)." New Scientist 9 Aug. 2003: 14. Nursing and Allied Health Collection. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.)
So, your diet may not only affect your own offspring. It could potentially affect your grandchildren as well.
Can Prenatal Vitamins Prevent Autism?
Scientifically, genes are passed down to children from their parents. Genes have jobs: to help transfer nutrients, to block nutrients, to facilitate deliverance of nutrients to specific parts of the body. Certain medical interactions can cause genes to either be switched off or turned on, which is believed to play a role in determining a child’s medical future. Taking a prenatal vitamin before pregnancy and during pregnancy has been said to possibly lower the risk of health conditions, such as autism, in children. The prenatal vitamin provides nutrients that are crucial to healthy fetal development.
One study published in Cambridge, MA, "Prenatal Vitamins, One-Carbon Metabolism Gene Variants, and Risk for Autism" states that a "...combination of specific gene variants within one-carbon metabolism pathways and no reported periconceptional prenatal vitamin intake was associated with significantly greater risk for autism in the child..." The study found that in a controlled group of mothers interviewed, those who had taken a prenatal vitamin before pregnancy (three months before, to be specific) produced more children without autism than those mothers who did not mention taking a prenatal vitamin before pregnancy.
The time leading up to pregnancy as well as the time immediately surrounding conception are crucial to healthy fetal development. The study states that "[d]uring [four weeks postconception in humans] preimplantation mammalian embryos undergo extensive DNA de-methylation, followed by reestablishment of methylation patterns after implantation...[nutrients found in prenatal vitamins] are vital for methylation of DNA, proteins, phospholipids, and neurotransmitters." Because this process happens relatively fast, and most mothers are unaware of their pregnancy until a few weeks after conception, you can see how easy it is for malnutrition of the fetus to take place. Those nutrients found in prenatal vitamins are essential to the healthy development of the fetus.
Let’s look at this metaphorically speaking to compare to any health risk: You buy a zucchini plant expecting to reap the delicious fruits of its crop. You plant the seed and water it daily, taking good care of it (so you think). You begin to notice that while the plant is growing, there is a white fungus and the plant stops producing flowers, the flowers which are supposed to give you the actual zucchinis. The plant is obviously lacking nutrients because it may be planted in poor soil – one of the factors that should have been examined before digging a spot to plant the seed. Additional vitamins (ex: miracle grow) may have helped the zucchini grow healthier, but it may have survived better if closer attention was paid to where the plant would be growing first.
Taking prenatal vitamins not only before, but throughout your pregnancy and even after (if breast feeding or planning to have more children) may also have effects on a child’s lifelong health in other areas. The study states that “"Folate and other B vitamins [found in prenatal vitamins] are critical to neurodevelopment. Cohort studies have shown that mothers who took folic acid-containing supplements before/during the first trimester have children with fewer behavioral problems at 18 months of age, improved scores on verbal, verbal-executive function, social competence, and attention measures at four years, and reduced hyperactivity and peer problems at 8 years."
The study did not analyze actual diets of participants, but doing so may have offered more in depth findings in addition to prenatal vitamin intake.
Another report clarifies the process of methylation of DNA and how the vitamin B12 play an importan role in regulating how genes work. In “Decreased Brain Levels of Vitamin B12 in Aging, Autism and Schizophrenia,” the authors state that “[m]ethylation of DNA and histone proteins complexly regulates gene expression and this form of epigenetic regulation is particularly important during development, including pre- and postnatal brain development . Neural tube defects, as well as Rett and Angelman/Prader-Willi neurodevelopmental syndromes are linked to defects in methylation-dependent epigenetic regulation [22-24].” In other words, that DNA methylation process is very important in determining genes of our children. The report also found that “[a]bnormal DNA methylation [27,28] has been reported in postmortem brain[s] of autistic subjects,” showing that the two are linked. Yiting Zhang et al. revealed that the vitamin B12 plays an important part in the regulation of genetic manifestation.
Zhang, Yiting, et al. "Decreased Brain Levels of Vitamin B12 in Aging, Autism and Schizophrenia." PLoS ONE 11.1 (2016). Health Reference Center Academic. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.
Aside from these studies, I think it is best to personally consult with your doctor before conception to receive dietary and supplemental guidelines. Just as the CDC claim, this hub is not meant to tell you what to eat and what not to eat before and during pregnancy. It is to bring awareness to certain factors that can significantly affect the health of both you and your unborn children.
Another action we can also take is to observe our daily habits. What are you doing right now that you know is not healthy? Are you a smoker? Do you drink heavily? Do you regularly follow an unhealthy diet? Are you, or are you at risk for becoming, obese? These things are partly in our control. Especially if you plan to conceive (soon or not), you should probably try to work on cutting unhealthy habits out of your life.
There may be other factors that you need to discuss with your doctor, such as existing health conditions, illnesses, or dietary restrictions (maybe you are lactose intolerant, but need a healthy way to up your dose of calcium). There are far too many to discuss in one article. You know your body best, and if your doctor has examined you for a while, so might he or she. At least ask if your Paleo diet might affect your pregnancy – it doesn’t mean you have to stop, just make sure you are receiving the proper nutrients to ensure a healthy life for you and the baby.
Changes In Prenatal Habits
What habits of your prenatal self are you thinking of changing?
Cohen, Philip. "You are what your mother ate: a few genes vital for health and development might be controlled by what your mother or grand mother ate before she even knew she was pregnant. (Frontiers: research news and innovation)." New Scientist 9 Aug. 2003: 14. Nursing and Allied Health Collection. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.
Mayo Clinic (Vitamins):
Prenatal vitamins, oral. RelayClinical Education. Feb 2012 v2012 i1 pNA.
Schmidt, Rebecca J. et al. “Prenatal Vitamins, One-Carbon Metabolism Gene Variants, and Risk for Autism.” Epidemiology (Cambridge, Mass.) 22.4 (2011): 476–485. PMC. Web. 25 Feb. 2016.
Szabo, Liz. CDC: Young women should avoid alcohol unless using birth control. USA Today. (2016). Web. 22 Feb. 2016.
U.S. National Library of Medicine: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/mplusdictionary.html (Medical Terms)
Xu, Xinran, and Jia Chen. “One-Carbon Metabolism and Breast Cancer: An Epidemiological Perspective.” Journal of genetics and genomics = Yi chuan xue bao 36.4 (2009): 203–214. PMC. Web. 25 Feb. 2016.
Zhang, Yiting, et al. "Decreased Brain Levels of Vitamin B12 in Aging, Autism and Schizophrenia." PLoS ONE 11.1 (2016). Health Reference Center Academic. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.