Iron levels during pregnancy

by | Nov 9, 2018

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During pregnancy, the risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia increases considerably. Tennille Aron spoke to Dr Corné Brink to find out why pregnant women are prone to developing this condition, and how they can avoid developing it by maintaining good iron levels.

There are many changes that the body undergoes during pregnancy to support both mom and the growing baby, including increasing mom’s blood volume to sustain the growing baby during the nine months of pregnancy.

As a result of the increase in blood volume, the amount of iron required during this period also increases. Therefore, pregnant women are often at a greater risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia if they do not maintain healthy iron levels throughout their pregnancy.

What is iron deficiency anaemia?

Iron deficiency anaemia is the most common form of anaemia found in pregnant women, explains gynaecologist and obstetrician Dr Corné Brink. This type of anaemia occurs when a pregnant woman does not have enough iron in her body to make haemoglobin – the molecule responsible for transporting oxygen in the blood. As a result, there is a lack of oxygen circulating in the blood and this can result in extreme fatigue, weakness and if it’s severe enough, it can affect the baby’s development.

Why does your risk of iron deficiency anaemia increase during pregnancy?

According to Brink, iron levels fluctuate during pregnancy for several reasons and this can leave you at higher risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia. “First, this can be because the mother produces more red blood cells, requiring more iron,” says Brink. Pregnant women require a larger blood volume to deliver oxygen to their growing baby during pregnancy, so more iron is required to create the haemoglobin molecules that transport this oxygen in the blood.

“Second, the foetus requires iron to produce its own red blood cells,” explains Brink, “and thus more iron is required by mom to keep her baby healthy.”

Starting out a pregnancy with a low iron supply can also increase your risk of developing anaemia during pregnancy significantly. “Some women start out early in pregnancy with low iron stores. This could be due to having a poor diet or being a vegetarian. Alternatively, other factors such as heavy periods, parasites, or having babies in short succession and not giving the body time to build up iron stores again can also lead to a low supply of iron in the body,” says Brink.

What are the symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia?

The most common symptoms of anaemia are:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Light-headedness
  • Pale appearance
  • Heart palpitations

How to monitor your iron levels

“All pregnant women will have a complete blood count test during their first prenatal appointment,” says Dr Brink. This test measures several components including the haemoglobin level in the blood, which can determine how good your iron levels are.

“If your iron levels are low, you will require iron supplementation, often more than what is available in the regular pregnancy multi-vitamin, and a doctor will immediately start you on this.” If your anaemia is mild, then a follow-up iron test will be scheduled later in your pregnancy, during your second or third trimester. If your anaemia is more severe, then your doctor should schedule regular iron tests throughout your pregnancy to help monitor your iron levels.

“In some cases, women will develop a condition called pica when they are iron-deficient. This is a condition in which you start to crave strange things due to a lack of iron. The most common cravings include soil, candles, ice and even clay,” says Dr Brink. But this usually disappears within a week or two of taking an iron supplement.

How can I improve my iron levels?

Brink suggests that a good way to improve your iron levels during pregnancy is to ensure you have healthy iron levels prior to falling pregnant. There are various ways that you can do this. “Having a healthy, balanced diet rich in iron, deworming regularly (not during pregnancy) and addressing heavy periods prior to falling pregnant will give you the best advantage when it comes to starting with adequate levels of iron,” says Dr Brink. If you start with a high level of iron in the body, then it is much easier to maintain this level when you fall pregnant.

“During the period of pregnancy, women generally maintain their iron stores by taking supplements – either a combination pregnancy supplement or iron on its own,” explains Dr Brink. This will depend on what your iron levels are and what is recommended by your doctor. You can also improve your iron levels by eating foods that are rich in iron and safe for pregnant women such as beef or chicken livers (however liver does contain unsafe amounts of Vitamin A for pregnant women, so limit to one or two servings per month), legumes, spinach and grains.

It is not only important to maintain good iron levels during your pregnancy, but also increasing your iron levels overall can greatly improve your health. So, take a page out of Popeye’s book and remember to munch on some spinach when you can, because it is sure to give you some extra energy and keep you and your baby healthy throughout your pregnancy.

Up your iron intake

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of iron during pregnancy is 30mg.

Here are some good sources of iron:

  • Spinach
  • Red meat
  • Chicken
  • Legumes
  • Grains
  • Eggs
  • Broccoli
  • Raspberries