How Does Iron Deficiency Affect Pregnancy?
What is iron and what does the body need it for?
Iron is an essential nutrient that helps our muscles store and use oxygen. Iron is also part of many enzymes and helps our bodies digest food. (2) “Almost two-thirds of iron in the body is in the hemoglobin present in circulating red blood cells. Hemoglobin moves oxygen to the tissues for metabolism…” (1)
Why are good iron levels necessary during pregnancy?
By the end of the pregnancy, a woman will have nearly 50 percent more blood volume than her pre-pregnant state. And the body needs more iron to make more hemoglobin for all that extra blood. The iron that transfers to the baby through the placenta supports normal brain development in the unborn child and allows the baby to build up six months’ worth of iron stores through the last trimester of pregnancy. (1)
Health Canada recommends that pregnant women take a daily supplement containing 16 to 20mg of iron. “[A] supplement of 16 mg per day throughout the pregnancy would be effective and safe for pregnant women who are in good health. When added to the iron they get from a mixed diet, these women would have all the iron they need for pregnancy… Additionally, supplementing well nourished pregnant women with 20 mg of iron per day has been shown to be effective in reducing the prevalence of iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia at the time of delivery….” (1)
How does iron deficiency affect a healthy pregnancy?
According to the World Health Organization, iron deficiency anemia (IDA) is the most common nutritional deficiency during pregnancy and occurs most often during the third trimester. (1)
It is possible for a woman to develop anemia as the pregnancy progresses, even if there was no prior history of anemia. (3) Severe morning sickness, two or more pregnancies close together, multiples pregnancy, an iron-poor diet, or heavy pre-pregnancy menstrual flow all increase the risk of IDA. (3)
Women may become iron deficient because (1, 4):
- They don’t take in sufficient amounts of iron
- Need more iron than they did when they weren’t pregnant
- Their bodies do not absorb enough iron from the foods they consume, especially if diet contains lots of vegetables, the iron in which is more difficult for the body to digest
- They were a regular blood donor or have donated blood three to six months prior to the pregnancy
- They experienced a recent miscarriage
- They conceived within two years of a previous birth
- They had a major operation just prior to getting pregnant.
Iron deficiency can result in (1):
- Maternal anemia;
- Premature delivery;
- Low birth weight, and
- An increased risk of perinatal infant mortality
Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia in pregnancy include (3, 4):
- Pale color (especially in fingernails, underside of your eyelids and your lips)
- Rapid heartbeat
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty concentrating
- Cravings for non-food items (called pica)
- Decreased resistance to minor illnesses
- ‘Feel the cold’ more
Your doctor will monitor for iron deficiency throughout your pregnancy, but is important that you are aware of the amount and type of iron you have in your diet (see here for a chart describing the difference between heme iron and non-heme iron) and make a concerted effort to make sure your body has the iron you and your baby need.
Darlene Oakley is a freelance writer for Empowher.com
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1) Prenatal Nutrition Guidelines for Health Professionals – Iron Contributes to a Healthy Pregnancy. Health Canada. Web. Dec 10, 2012.
2) Nutrition for Everyone: Iron and Iron Deficiency. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. Dec 10, 2012.
3) Iron-deficiency anemia in pregnancy. BabyCenter.com. Web. Dec 10, 2012.
4) Iron deficiency during pregnancy. Birth.com.au. Web. Dec 10, 2012.
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