pregnant, prenatal vitamins

Prenatal vitamins versus hair, skin and nails vitamins - which one is better for hair growth?

You may have commented on occasion to your pregnant friends and family about their glowing skin appearance and lustrous hair. Many will have likely told you they have been on some form of prenatal vitamin formulation for the past several months. This may have given you pause for thought and begs the question that is the subject of this week’s blog.  Prenatal vitamins versus hair, skin and nail vitamins - which one is better for hair growth?

Are prenatal vitamins good for hair and nail growth?

To begin, let’s remind ourselves of some of the changes our body incurs while we are pregnant. First, increased levels of estrogen are produced. This, in turn, can lead to increased hair diameter and hair growth rates, and an increased ratio of hair in the anagen phase (growth phase) to telogen phase (resting phase). In extreme cases some women may even experience hair growth that is either straighter or curlier than normal, with a different texture and potentially even a slight change in color. The increased hormone production during pregnancy can also cause the sebaceous glands to secrete more oil which can make your scalp and hair feel more oily than normal and also help your skin look a bit more radiant and shiny. It’s no wonder then that many women would like to bottle all of this up and reep the benefits without actually having to be pregnant. And so it is therefore not too surprising that many women take prenatal vitamins to promote hair growth, often reasoning that they will gain even more since the 100% of the benefits will be prescribed to themselves, rather than being shared in some fraction with a developing baby.

Although this may all seem to make sense, you need to keep in mind a couple of things. First, many of these benefits have more to do with those hormonal changes which you will not find in any prenatal supplement. Secondly, remember that getting too much of a vitamin or mineral can sometimes do more harm than good. The most important nutrients for an expectant mother and baby are folic acid, iron, calcium, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acid and iodine, and so these are the nutrients commonly found in prenatal vitamins (typically along with many others).

Do prenatal vitamins help with hair, skin and nails?

Our body can metabolize only so much folic acid, and so excesses circulate in our bloodstream as unmetabolized folic acid. The effect of this remains an active area of scientific investigation as excess folic acid circulating in the blood has been linked to an increased risk of cancer or its progression if already diagnosed, an increased resistance to insulin in children, setting them on the path towards diabetes, a possible adverse interaction with certain epilepsy medications and a masking of vitamin B12 deficiencies, where a delay in diagnosis could lead to neurological damage.

As we know, iron is essential for good health, but it can also be quite toxic, which is why our body, with the help of the hormone hepcidin, tightly regulates its presence. Hepcidin suppresses the absorption of iron, so if we have a high concentration of iron in our body, our levels of hepcidin increase, and the bodily absorption of iron decreases, and vice-versa. A result of this regulation is that it is highly unusual to suffer from excessive iron from diet alone. But if you start taking high-dose iron prenatal vitamins, there is a risk you could tip the scales whereby hepcidin can no longer keep up, and iron toxicity results. This may result in nausea, vomiting, stomach pains and/or diarrhea. Over longer terms, it can accumulate and cause irreversible damage to organs.

And calcium? We know how important that is for children’s bone and teeth development, in-utero achieved by effectively a transfer of calcium from the mother’s bone mass to the baby. This is why sufficient calcium intake is essential for expectant mothers to prevent conditions such as osteoporosis or fractures.  But just like iron, getting too much of it can lead to unhealthy levels circulating in the blood, which can be made worse by high levels of vitamins A and D (which are also likely to be in the prenatal supplement). Health problems linked to excessive calcium ingestion include constipation, kidney stones, kidney failure, and heart and cognitive function.

And those omega-3 fatty acids? Over-ingestion can cause blood thinning (think nosebleeds and bleeding gums), diarrhea, and heartburn has also been linked to colitis and alterations to our immune system that may lead to an improper immune response to bacterial or viral infections.

Prenatal supplements were formulated for a specific purpose – to promote the health and well-being of women who are planning to conceive, and expectant mothers and their babies. If your goal is to improve the appearance of your hair, skin, and nails, it is best to stick with a supplement that was specifically formulated to do so. And by doing so, should you become one of the 45% of all pregnancies in the US that are unplanned, your baby will at least have a bit of a head start, but you should immediately discuss your supplement usage with your obstetrician, and she/he will be able to tell you what the best steps for you will be during and after pregnancy.

Take away message

This week we discussed prenatal vitamins versus hair, skin, and nail vitamins - which one is better for hair growth? Though on the surface, there appeared to be some justification for using prenatal vitamins for hair, skin, and nails, most of the benefits are in fact, more pregnancy-induced hormone surge driven, rather than found in the bottle of prenatal supplements. In fact, using prenatal vitamins can potentially be harmful, leading to toxicity effects in folic acid, iron, calcium, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids, and possibly many others we did not discuss. So if you are looking to improve the health and appearance of your hair, skin and nails, it’s probably best to stick with supplements that were formulated specifically for that reason.

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