Iron & the Human Body
During pregnancy and breastfeeding, your body will require additional iron as well as other nutrients necessary for the creation of new cells. Amazingly, the human body increases its blood supply by 20-30% during pregnancy. In order to accomplish this dramatic growth, additional nutrients are necessary. Iron is one of these critical necessities for a healthy pregnancy. Yet, Iron deficiency anemia is most often the cause of anemia & anemia itself is incredibly common.
Unfortunately, Iron deficient anemia is considered to be reaching epidemic levels. “Even in developed countries, 50% of women during their reproductive years have poor iron levels & Up to 52% of pregnant women in the developing world are affected by anemia (Abu-Ouf). Increasing levels of iron via fortified diets & supplementation does not always seem to improve iron levels. This is because in order to properly care for the human body; all aspects of nutrition need to be taken into account.
Iron can be supplemented, but this doesn’t mean its absorbed.
Just because someone is taking iron supplements, does not always mean their body is actually absorbing the iron. For instance, an acidic environment in your small intestine aids in the absorption of iron. This is why it is recommended that Vitamin C be taken along with Iron supplements. vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is used to enhance iron absorption.
Also, just as there are nutrients that assist each other, there are ones that counteract! For example, calcium & iron counteract each other so they must be taken separately. When the body does successfully absorb iron, it is transported into bone marrow where it is incorporated into red blood cell production.
If assisting nutrients, like vitamin C, Folic Acid, and B12 are not adequately present in a mother’s diet, the unused iron supplement portions can cause irritation of the kidneys and intestines, which causes indigestion and constipation. Having a diet that encompasses all nutrients necessary for a healthy mom and baby, will make absorption of each supplement easier on mom’s body, with fewer side effects.
But why is proper Iron intake so important?
Iron is ESSENTIAL for a healthy pregnancy. Iron deficiency anemia causes those affected to experience fatigue, apathy, fainting, & breathlessness, headaches, hair loss, and tinnitus. It can also cause dysfunction in the immune system making those affected more at risk for infection. “Maternal anemia is considered as a risk factor for poor pregnancy outcomes, and it threatens the life of fetus”(Abu-Ouf). Mother’s who are iron deficient during pregnancy also have an increased risk of developing a perinatal infection, pre-eclampsia, bleeding, premature labor, intrauterine growth retardation, low birth weights, birth asphyxia, and neonatal anemia.
The problems anemia can cause will carry over into babies lives after birth. If mom is not properly absorbing iron during her postpartum period, she will not be able to provide her infant with iron via breastmilk that babies need in order to develop. Breastfeeding protects infants from iron deficiency, but only if the mother is not iron deficient as well. Infants and young children with iron deficiency anemia are at risk of developmental difficulties involving cognitive, social-emotional, and adaptive functions such as delays in language & motor development.
This Sounds Intense, What can be done?
Now that we know why anemia is of such concern, especially while pregnant, let’s focus on how we can improve and prevent anemia!
The first major step that needs to be taken in order to reduce levels of anemia, is proper parental care for women. Health care providers can give anemia high priority and focus on educating clients prior to conception, diagnosing women early, and treatment to reduce risks for expecting mothers and babies. Make sure to talk to your health care provider if there is concern about anemia. Providers will run a blood test to check up on your levels.
Next, Ensuring that mom is eating a proper, well rounded, nutrient filled diet is SO essential! As mentioned before, Iron can be supplemented but it will not be properly absorbed if vitamin C, folic acid, and B12 nutrients are not available to aid in absorption. This unused, unabsorbed iron will cause constipation and indigestion. Expecting moms are already experiencing new (& sometimes uncomfortable) symptoms of pregnancy, they really do not need indigestion and constipation added to the list!
It is best to start supplementing iron prior to conception to avoid risks to mom & baby, but as not all pregnancies are planned, taking iron as soon as possible is beneficial. It is advised that iron supplement intake for expecting mothers should not exceed 100mg, as high amounts of iron supplements can be toxic to the mother and baby. Iron can be supplemented via fortified foods, supplements, or intravenously. Those who live a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle will have to be extra vigilant about keeping track of iron levels. It is helpful to buy organic foods when possible because the nutritional value of organic foods is much higher than those that are grown commercially.
Iron intake and proper absorption are critical for all human bodies, especially expecting mothers. Receiving satisfactory prenatal care, eating a nutrient-filled diet and/or supplementing Iron, B12, Folate, & Vitamin C prior to conception or after finding out about pregnancy are wonderful ways to prevent a myriad of complications caused by iron deficient anemia. Also, make sure to talk to your health care provider if there is concern about anemia.
Have questions? Comments? Concerns? Be sure to contact me & Let’s talk!
Abu-Ouf, Noran, and Mohammed Jan. “The Impact of Maternal Iron Deficiency and Iron Deficiency Anemia on Child’s Health.” Saudi Medical Journal, vol. 36, no. 2, 2015, pp. 146–149., doi:10.15537/smj.2015.2.10289.
“Anemia and Pregnancy.” Anemia and Pregnancy, 8 Sept. 2017, www.hematology.org/Patients/Anemia/Pregnancy.aspx.
Davis, Elizabeth, and Linda Harrison. Heart & Hands: a Midwifes Guide to Pregnancy and Birth. Ten Speed Press, 2012.
Suryanarayana, Ravishankar, et al. “Prospective Study on Prevalence of Anemia of Pregnant Women and Its Outcome: A Community Based Study.” Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, vol. 6, no. 4, 2017, p. 739., doi:10.4103/jfmpc.jfmpc_33_17.