Vitamins: Can They Prevent Preeclampsia?

I recently heard that during the second half of their pregnancy, women should be taking vitamins E and C to prevent preeclampsia. My prenatals don't have much in the way of vitamin C and E. What should I do?

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Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

It is too early for a recommendation. The study that you are referring to was reported in the September 4, 1999 edition of the Lancet (1999;354;788-789, 810-816). It is the first study of its kind. And, although the findings are promising, no scientific study is ever considered conclusive until similar studies are conducted that replicate the results. The only recommendation that can be made from this study is that more such studies should be carried out.

Results of the recent study, carried out in London, showed that daily supplements of vitamin E and C significantly reduced a pregnant women's risk of developing preeclampsia. The participants of the study were women considered at high risk for this condition. (Women with pre-existing hypertensive disorders or family histories of hypertension are considered at increased risk for preeclampsia.) Therefore, the study cannot be applied to women not at risk and studies should be carried out with women who do not fall into the high risk group.

Preeclampsia is a condition that generally begins sometime after the twentieth week of pregnancy. It is characterized by dangerously high blood pressure, protein in the urine and swelling of the face, hands and feet. It can result in detachment of the placenta from the uterine wall, premature birth, smaller babies, an increased risk of caesarian section and, in the worst case, death of the baby and/or the mother. Because of the seriousness of the condition, studies to find means of preventing and treating preeclampsia are very important.

In previous studies, it was found that calcium supplementation helped to prevent it. However, it is important to note that the level of recommended supplementation only insured that pregnant moms reached the recommended intake or just slightly above.

The most recent government survey shows that women of childbearing age are consuming less than 600 milligrams of calcium per day. Prenatal vitamins cannot supply 100 percent of vitamins and minerals because the pill would become too large to swallow. Therefore, supplementing with calcium, either by eating calcium rich foods, or taking a calcium supplement is recommended. However, the supplementation should not exceed the 1200 to 1800 milligrams currently recommended for pregnant moms.

If your prenatal vitamin does not supply 100 percent of your daily need for vitamin C and E, than additional supplements that bring you up to recommended levels are safe and advisable. In the study mentioned earlier, women were given 1000 milligrams of vitamin C and 400 IU of vitamin E, both well above the recommended amounts. Vitamin C and vitamin E are both well tolerated at levels above recommended intakes and show few signs of toxicity when taken in high doses by non-pregnant people.

Many people, even scientists who know the evidence is not conclusive, take supplements of both in hopes of taking advantage of the antioxidative effects of these two vitamins and their potential for preventing diseases and premature aging. For pregnant women, taking a supplement beyond the proven safe and adequate intake is putting their unborn baby at possible risk for as yet unknown side effects.

Getting more vitamin C and E from food sources is a safe way to increase your intake of those two vitamins. It is almost impossible to eat enough foods to reach potentially unsafe levels. Foods rich in vitamin C include citrus fruits, green and red peppers, cantaloupe, potatoes, tomatoes, strawberries, cabbage and broccoli. Foods rich in vitamin E include vegetable oils -- especially corn, soy and wheat germ oil, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, corn, cashews, almonds, corn oil margarine and peanuts.

If you are at risk for preeclampsia, speak with your doctor about this study. Review your diet to be sure you are getting enough calcium, vitamin E and C. For those not at risk, making sure that you are getting 100 percent of your recommended intake makes sense, along with enhancing your diet with foods rich in those nutrients.

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