Maintaining healthy levels
Maggie Evans, RM, RN, MSc
During pregnancy every system of a womanâ??s body changes to nurture the life within. One very important change is the need for increased levels of iron. Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to iron-deficiency anemia due to these extra requirements.
During pregnancy every system of a woman’s body changes to nurture the life within. One very important change is the need for increased levels of iron. Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to iron-deficiency anemia due to these extra requirements.
During early pregnancy, the amount of iron required is approximately 1 mg to 2 mg per day, while the requirement may increase to 6 mg to 8 mg per day toward the end of term.
The increased demand for iron coincides with a surge in physical growth and maturation of the baby’s brain. The baby must also build up its own iron stores to last for the first six months of life. This happens during the final months of pregnancy, placing extra demands on the mother’s stores.
Iron Supplementation–The Challenges
Women who become anemic during pregnancy may require iron supplements. However, many find that iron supplementation can come with unpleasant side effects, including stomach cramps, constipation, nausea, and headaches, which can affect enjoyment of this special time.
Because of these side effects, many women forgo their iron supplements, which may lead to anemia. Unfortunately, iron-deficiency anemia may result in complications during pregnancy and childbirth, including increased risk of infection, hemorrhage, and premature or low birth-weight babies.
Understanding Iron Absorption
The absorption of iron from food and iron supplements is very complex; the amount of absorption ranges from 5 to 20 percent of the total dietary intake of iron. Some foodstuffs act as inhibitors of iron absorption (phytates in cereal and tannin in tea), while others act as enhancers (meat, fish, and poultry).
To be absorbed effectively, iron must be in a soluble form. Eating a healthy diet with plenty of citrus fruits and vegetables containing vitamin C enhances absorption. However, regular iron tablets are prepared in a solid form comprised of high-dose inorganic iron, which accounts for many of the well-known side effects. Trying to absorb very large amounts of iron in this format is cumbersome for the digestive system, inevitably leading to poor absorption (on average 5 percent) and possibly resulting in untoward side effects.
Organic, soluble forms of iron have been found to be more efficiently absorbed in much lower and therefore safer doses (particularly important for pregnancy). Studies have shown that natural, water-based iron sources are effective for preventing iron-deficiency anemia in pregnancy, have no side effects, and have extremely good absorption rates of up to 40 percent.
Routine low-dose iron supplementation throughout pregnancy poses no risk to the mother or fetus and overcomes the potential for unpleasant side effects common with regular iron tablets.
Maintaining sufficient iron stores is an entirely safe and achievable goal for expectant mothers who wish to ensure the best outcome for the new life they are nurturing.