If you’re pregnant, one of the first things your doctor will ask you to do is to take pregnancy supplements. Here, our experts share more about what you need to know about folic acid and other pregnancy supplements.
I’m eating well. Is it really necessary to take vitamins during my pregnancy?
Are you having three square meals a day – a balanced diet consisting of several servings of veggies, fruit, wholegrains, low-fat dairy products and protein?
If you are, then you’re likely to have adequate nutrition to support you and your baby, says Dr Tan Eng Loy, senior consultant at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Singapore General Hospital (SGH).
But if you skip meals frequently or eat a lot of snacks and fast food, then a nutrition boost in the form of a prenatal vitamin may help you.
Food and nutition consultant Mayura Mohta says studies show that a prenatal diet can influence a child’s health.
If an expectant mum doesn’t eat well, her kid may have a higher risk of developing certain diseases like hypertension and diabetes later in life, she says.
Why can’t I pop a regular multivitamin?
It’s safer for expectant mums to switch to a pregnancy supplement instead of a generic multivitamin, say the experts.
That’s because prenatal supplements are generally formulated to contain the essential vitamins and minerals in the right amounts, while reducing or removing the ones that may do harm to your developing baby, explains Dr Tan.
But it’s such a waste to junk my regular supplements. Why can’t I take them with my prenatal pill?
It’s possible to have too much of a good thing, says Dr Christopher Ng of GynaeMD Women’s and Rejuvenation Clinic at Camden Medical Centre.
A prenatal vitamin will contain the recommended daily allowance of nutrients. “Taking more than what is recommended can be harmful to your baby, especially vitamin A, which can cause birth defects,” warns Mayura.
Steer clear of multivitamins containing more than 5,000 international units (IU) of vitamin A, says Dr Tan.
During pregnancy, you should also avoid taking too much liver, as this organ meat contains high amounts of the natural substance.
“While vitamin A is needed for your baby’s development of the many vital organs and systems, taking it in excess can be harmful, and cause liver damage and birth defects,” explains Dr Ng.
I read that too much folic acid can lead to cancer. Is it still safe to take the supplement?
Don’t panic, reassures Dr Tan. “The study in question was performed on rats, and humans and rats metabolise folic acid differently,” he says.
It’s still important that you take folic acid – especially during the first three months of pregnancy – since there’s robust evidence to show that it can lower the risks of neural tube defects in a developing baby.
It can also reduce other abnormal organ formation and prevent premature separation of the placenta (placental abruption).
In Singapore, folic acid is generally available in doses of 5mg per tablet and prescribed to mums-to-be.
If you have medical conditions or are taking pills such as anti-epilepsy tablets, you may require higher doses of folic acid, says Dr Tan. Check with your doctor.
When is the best time of the day to pop a vitamin?
If you’ve a sensitive stomach, take your supplement after meals. This also helps your body better absorb the nutrients, says Mayura.
What you shouldn’t do is take supplements on an empty stomach – they will quickly pass out in your urine, she adds. This is especially true for the B and C vitamins that dissolve in water.
Can I still drink coffee during my pregnancy?
You may want to hold off that cup of tea (or coffee) when you take your prenatal vitamin. According to Mayura, there’s some evidence to suggest that caffeine affects the way your body absorbs calcium.
Polyphenols – natural compounds found in tea, coffee and certain herbs – also interfere with iron absorption. In fact, certain types of coffee can inhibit retention of the mineral by as much as 60 per cent, adds Mayura.
“If you need a caffeine jolt, it’s best to wait two hours before or after an iron-rich meal to have coffee, tea, hot cocoa or any product that contains polyphenol,” she advises.
If you’re taking medication, it’s also best to check with your doctor to ensure that there are no harmful side effects.
Does price matter when you buy pregnancy supplements?
You get what you pay for, Mayura believes, adding that cheap ones tend to be of low quality and have lower amounts of vitamins and minerals.
A good-quality supplement should have natural and absorbable forms of nutrients. For instance, natural vitamin E (called d-alpha tocopherol) is more functional than the synthetic version.
Minerals such as calcium are also better absorbed by the body when consumed as ascorbates, chelates or citrates, she says.
(Also read: Should you have a drug-free childbirth?)