All this from just two half-cells! Each cell contains even smaller parts. These building blocks within cells include proteins, sugars, fats, vitamins and minerals. All of these components are found in a balanced diet. Each cell must be healthy in order to create that perfect little baby. If the building blocks for the cells are not there, the miraculous process of pregnancy and childbirth is at risk. Getting the right vitamins and minerals is an essential part of building a healthy baby.
Even at the best of times, it is difficult to eat the perfect balance of calories and nutrients. Our lives are hectic and we snack or skip meals frequently. We no longer prepare all of our food from our own gardens. Often, we eat food that has been processed or shipped great distances, losing nutrients along the way. We are surrounded by fast food, sugary drinks, frozen dinners and refined products.
Add in the demands of pregnancy, and it is no wonder that many women lack some of the basic vitamins and minerals in their diets. More than half of women in their childbearing years get less than the recommended daily intake of certain nutrients. In Canada, our native population is often at the highest risk.
Not getting enough of a certain nutrient can cause problems. Difficulties in becoming pregnant, miscarriage, the baby’s growth and preterm (premature) birth may all be linked. Physical, intellectual and behavioural development can also be affected. Lack of a particular nutrient does not necessarily cause the problems and improving the diet may not solve them. However, it is a good place to start. Be careful not to have too much of certain vitamins and minerals either, since this can also do harm. Women are not always aware that a problem exists, since it is common not to have any symptoms at all.
Many years ago the addition of vitamins and minerals to common foods was suggested to help prevent some health problems. Iodine was added to salt to help reduce thyroid disease. More recently, folic acid was added to flour products in Canada. These have been very successful supplementation programs.
Folic acid is important to building red blood cells. If the diet does not include enough of this vitamin, anemia can result. Not getting enough folic acid before and during pregnancy can result in neural tube defects, or NTDs, in the baby’s spine. Since folic acid was added to flour products, the rate of NTDs in Canada has dropped by half. Folic acid deficiency is also linked to other abnormalities in babies, miscarriage and low birth weight. Most women are advised to supplement with 0.4 mg of extra folic acid each day, from three months before becoming pregnant until six months after giving birth. On the advice of a physician, some women may require up to 5.0 mg of extra folic acid.
Vitamins B6 and B12, found in leafy green vegetables, are also needed to build healthy red blood cells. They seem to combine with folic acid to improve pregnancy outcomes. Levels of these vitamins are lower in women taking birth control pills. Not getting enough vitamin B12 is associated with reduced fertility.
Vitamin A is essential for the growth and development of the embryo, the first few cells that will become the baby. It also plays a role in forming red blood cells, immune (defence) system functions and the baby’s eyesight. Carrots are a great source of vitamin A.
Vitamin C has been known for centuries to be important for healthy gums and teeth. It also helps develop nerves and collagen, a fibrous substance found throughout the body. This vitamin may help prevent infection. It may also avert gestational diabetes, a blood glucose problem that can happen during pregnancy. Low birth weight, high blood pressure problems, and early rupture of membranes (the water sac around the baby) are all linked to a lack of vitamin C in pregnancy. In smokers, vitamin C has resulted in higher pregnancy rates. Vitamin C is found in fresh fruits and most fruit juices.
Vitamin E may help to reduce the rate or severity of high blood pressure conditions in pregnancy. However, more research on this is needed.
Iron is well known to be an essential part of red blood cells. Without enough of this mineral, iron deficiency anemia can result. Iron deficiency anemia is associated with preterm birth, low birth weight babies and stillbirth. Mothers with low iron levels are often so tired that they have trouble doing normal daily tasks. Iron deficiency anemia also makes it harder to fight off infection or deal with the blood loss of delivery. Most women in their childbearing years do not get enough iron from their diet. Iron is found in red meats and deep green vegetables. Taking your iron with a vitamin C source such as orange juice will improve the absorption of the iron while several other foods such as milk, spinach and rhubarb interfere with iron absorption.
Calcium is a building block for bones. Pregnant women who do not get enough calcium in their diet may experience muscle cramping, as calcium is important to muscle activity. Low calcium intake is associated with low birth weight babies and high blood pressure in the pregnant mother. The best sources of calcium are milk and milk products and fortified soy products.
Iodine is important to the thyroid gland. A lack of iodine can mean low thyroid hormone levels. During pregnancy, this can lead to permanent brain injury in the baby, miscarriage and stillbirth. Since Canadian table salt is iodized, and our soil and water have good levels of iodine, iodine deficiency is not likely here.
Other trace minerals are important for the baby’s developing brain, bones and other organs. For instance, when there is not enough magnesium in the diet, high blood pressure conditions of pregnancy, birth defects and babies with restricted growth are more likely.
A special multivitamin complex for women who are of childbearing age may improve fertility in women trying to become pregnant. Babies born to women who use multivitamins throughout early pregnancy are much less likely to have several abnormalities. These include NTDs, heart malformations, cleft palate, and abnormalities of the arms and legs. They are also less likely to suffer from leukemia or brain tumours in the first year of life. Pregnant mothers may also be at lower risk for developing high blood pressure conditions. Mineral and vitamin supplements have not been shown to prevent chromosome (genetic) abnormalities like Down syndrome.
Many women in their childbearing years do not get dequate amounts of various vitamins and minerals from their diets. If a woman waits until she knows she is pregnant to take multivitamin supplements, she may be too late to get the full benefits. As well, half of all pregnancies are not planned. To have the healthiest pregnancies and babies possible, it makes sense for all women to take recommended daily doses of multivitamins throughout their childbearing years.