Pregnancy comes with a lot of changes for the expectant mother, one of them being increased iron needs. Pregnant women need large quantities of iron to help build the placenta and the increased blood volume that comes with gestation. Since red blood cells are responsible for bringing oxygen to all of the cells and tissues, extra iron is needed to make all the hemoglobin required.
Without sufficient iron, symptoms of iron deficiency will appear, such as:
- Low tolerance for physical activity
- Trouble sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
- Decreased appetite
If left unchecked, iron deficiency can lead to anemia and significant health problems. This added burden and risk to an already demanding period can be avoided with adequate iron intake. This typically means a diet enriched in iron, but unfortunately many women are affected by nausea and vomiting in the first trimester which makes iron absorption from diet all the more challenging.
Most pregnant women in North America have trouble getting the iron they need through diet alone.
According to Health Canada, a daily supplement containing 16 to 20 mg of iron is recommended during pregnancy. It was concluded that a supplement of 16 mg per day throughout 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 deficient anemia at the time of delivery.
Sufficient iron levels are not only essential for the health of the mother but also for the health and development of the fetus, especially during the first trimester and early second trimester. Iron deficiency may result in developmental problems in an unborn child’s brain and can increase a pregnant woman’s risk for a premature or low birth weight baby. The fetus will also need to be able to draw enough iron from the placenta to make its own reserves of iron, since its iron ingestion and absorption will be insufficient for some time after birth.
In the first trimester, if an expectant mother is unable to fully digest meals and snacks, there are rarely sufficient levels of nutrients to completely provide for the needs of the mother and child. Certain combinations of foods affect the absorption of iron, which can limit the amount of iron gained from diet and supplements. Specially formulated doses of iron enriched prenatal vitamins are recommended to all pregnant women. However, some of these supplements are also associated with gastrointestinal side effects which can complicate therapeutic adherence. Speak with your doctor about pre natal nutrition and recommendations for your pregnancy specifically.
Physicians normally prescribe a diet rich in iron fortified foods which are soothing to expectant mothers’ gastrointestinal tracts. In women who continue to struggle with low iron, doctors can rely on supplements which are associated with fewer side effects than traditional iron supplements. Newer Polysaccharide-Iron Complex (PIC) supplements, such as
- Health Canada website: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/pubs/nutrition/iron-fer-eng.php
- Fernández-Ballart and Murphy, 2001; Hercberg et al, 2000; IOM, 2001; Turner et al, 2003; Cooper et al, 2006