Planning for pregnancy? You’ve likely heard that getting on a good prenatal vitamin is an important first step. But how soon should you get started? Spoiler alert: It’s earlier than you might think.
When to start taking prenatal vitamins?
For your best bet, start taking a prenatal supplement three to four months before you start trying to conceive. This lead-up window is key for supporting the healthy development of your eggs (and protecting them along the way!) and for allowing enough time to load up on important nutrients like Folic Acid and Iron.
Here, we dive into the reasons why you should start taking prenatal vitamins three to four months before you hope to get pregnant:
1. Eggs take over three months to develop.
When you’re trying to conceive, the egg that is ovulated that cycle has already been growing and developing for over three months. That’s three months of being subjected to hormones, chemicals, stress, nutrients (or lack thereof) and other factors that could affect its development journey.
That almost four-month window right before conception is called the preconception period, and it's a critical time when eggs are vulnerable to your nutrition status and environment.
Getting your health and nutrition in order early is key for helping improve egg quality and your overall chance of pregnancy. One study found that engaging in a preconception maternal healthcare program was associated with significantly lower risks of preterm birth, low birth weight babies, and neonatal complications.
2. Folic Acid gets used very early in pregnancy.
In the first few weeks of pregnancy, Folic Acid is essential for the earliest development of your baby’s spinal cord and brain. So you’ll want your levels to be adequate even before you conceive. Without enough Folic Acid, there’s a major risk that the early neural tube might not close properly. Also called a neural tube defect, this can lead to spina bifida, paralysis or completely prevent the fetal brain from developing.
Folic Acid also plays a major role in methylation. This is where it works with Vitamin B6 and Vitamin B12 to tack on molecular methyl groups to proteins, hormones and DNA. This process detoxifies harmful chemical substances and controls the on/off switch on your genes, affecting a lot of cellular processes needed for growth and development. It also recycles a compound called homocysteine, which in excess can cause DNA strands to break. High homocysteine levels have been linked to NTDs, pregnancy loss, preterm delivery and restricted fetal growth.
With so much on the line, it’s important to start a Folic Acid supplement as soon as possible when trying to conceive, and ideally, three months before you start trying so that there’s enough time to get your stores in good shape. Since Vitamins B6 and B12 are Folic Acid’s methylation buddies, it’s even better if you take them too. Aim for 400 mcg to 1,000 mcg of Folic Acid, or its active version, 5-MTHF (5-methyltetrahydrofolate).
To cover all your bases, Bird&Be’s The Essentials for Females and The Powers for Females each contain 400 mcg of Folic Acid plus 600 mcg of 5-MTHF, along with 25 mg of Vitamin B6 and 1 mg of Vitamin B12.
3. You need Iron to support blood flow.
If you tend to have very heavy menstrual bleeding or eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, it’s a good idea to have your Iron levels checked. Iron is needed to help carry and deliver fresh oxygen to all the tissues of your body, including your uterus. Considering that the uterine lining will be the site of connection between your body and your baby’s, ensuring good blood flow and oxygen and nutrient delivery is important.
4. Antioxidants can protect your eggs (and sperm!) from damage.
Aside from getting the key nutrients that your ovaries and eggs need, this preconception period is also the best time to protect your eggs from damage. Certain antioxidants can help scavenge reactive molecules called free radicals. These free radicals are produced as part of your normal metabolism and cell energy production, but we also accumulate them from foods, toxins and other stressors that we’re exposed to. In high concentrations, free radicals can cause cell and DNA damage to the follicles (and eggs) in the ovaries.
By adding in antioxidant support (both as a supplement and by eating more fruits and vegetables!), you score bodyguard-like protection for your eggs and their critical cell components such as DNA. Examples of antioxidants known to benefit egg quality include CoQ10 and L-Carnitine.
If you’re over the age of 35 or are struggling with infertility, antioxidants can start to pay off after three months. Generally, you’ll want to take 200 mg of CoQ10, but if you’ve been told you have poor egg quality, low egg reserves, or if you’re over 35, you’ll want to up that dose (add Bird&Be’s Extra Egg Health Booster to add 400 mg of CoQ10 to The Powers for Females’ 200 mg). In one study, supplementing with 600 mg of CoQ10 daily for two months before IVF led to a greater number of retrieved eggs, higher fertilization rates and higher quality embryos.
And if you have a partner with sperm, don’t forget that the little swimmers can benefit from antioxidant support too. Afterall, 50 percent of your baby’s DNA comes from the sperm, so it’s equally important to protect that DNA from breaks and mutations. And in terms of getting pregnant, healthy undamaged sperm are more likely to be able to swim and fertilize your egg! Like eggs, sperm take about 80 days to fully develop, so sperm preconception care should start around the same time (or even earlier). Again, look for CoQ10 and L-Carnitine, plus N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC), Zinc and Vitamin E.
When to start prenatal vitamins for IVF/fertility treatment?
The same rules apply for patients undergoing fertility treatments like IUI and IVF. You want to start taking a prenatal vitamin three to four months before your IUI or IVF cycle (or ASAP if you’re already in a cycle or are close to starting one!). Basic prenatal nutrients, like the vitamins, minerals and Omega-3s found in Bird&Be’s The Essentials for Females should be continued throughout your fertility treatment and pregnancy.
Should I take a prenatal if I’m not trying to get pregnant?
Even if you’re not actively trying, the CDC and Health Canada both recommend that all people with eggs who could become pregnant take daily Folic Acid to help prevent neural tube defects in the event of pregnancy. Did you know that about half of pregnancies are unplanned? Taking a multivitamin with Folic Acid (A.K.A. a prenatal) can check this off the list while also supporting your overall health.