Iron deficiency is the leading nutrient deficiency worldwide. Being pregnant means that you are particular vulnerable of becoming iron deficient due to the increased requirements of iron that accompany this period. Currently around 1 in 5 women are anaemic during pregnancy.
Iron plays many roles in the body with the most important being to help forming haemoglobin, which is found within red blood cells and is responsible for transporting oxygen around the human body. When your body has low iron stores you develop a condition is called anaemia, which means that your cells aren’t supplied with enough oxygen and consequently you become fatigued very easily.
Increased amounts of iron are required during pregnancy due to the increase in blood volume for your growing baby. Iron is transferred from your stores to the fetus with most occurring after 30weeks gestation. More iron is needed for the rapidly increasing number of red blood cells due to increase in blood volume as well the additional iron that is needed for fetal growth and brain development. By the time your baby is born, enough has to be transferred to they must have enough iron already stored to last the first 5-6months of life or until they start eating a solid diet that includes iron sources. If your iron levels are low then this will have a detrimental impact on the baby’s iron content, with very minimal being able to be transferred across the placenta for the baby’s supply.
Iron deficiency can have the following effects on your pregnancy:
- Low birth weight – Your baby’s weight may be lower than what is classed as the normal weight for that gestation, and could potentially develop intrauterine growth retardation whereby growth is much less than expected.
- Poor Apgar scores – This score represents the baby’s health at birth and first 5minutes of life.
- Preterm delivery – You may go into labour prior to your due date, which can have impact on baby’s outcome.
- Interference with normal development of baby – Inadequate iron stores can impact normal growth with neurological or brain development, permanently impaired memory, motor and behaviour development.
- Increased labour time.
- Higher risk of infection.
- Lower physical capacity – You will feel fatigued throughout pregnancy and have minimal amounts of energy.
The total iron requirement for pregnancy is estimated to be 1040mg, which includes the losses of 840mg from that transferred to fetus, placenta formation, expansion of blood volume and blood loss during labour. This approximates to 200mg retained by the mother post-delivery.
The Australian Recommended Daily Intake of iron for pregnant women is 27mg/day. This is significant higher than recommended 18mg/day in non-pregnant women. Statistics show that women are only consuming approximately half of recommendations, and interestingly enough vegetarians having a higher overall intake of iron than women who consume animal meat diets.
Dietary iron is also available in two forms, haem and non-haem, which differ in bioavailability to the body. Foods rich in haem iron with higher availability include red meat, organ meats such as liver, oysters and shrimp and iron-fortified cereals. Non-haem iron can be found in dried fruit, cooked legumes, and green vegetables, and despite having lower bioavailability, accounts for 95% of iron consumed. To aid with absorption, Vitamin C should be consumed simultaneously with plant sources of iron, whereas caffeine should be avoided. This means drinking a glass of orange juice whilst having a vegetarian sandwich.
If you are finding it difficult to include high iron foods in your diet then iron supplements are especially recommended to help you achieve the requirements. Iron is contained within some types of pregnancy multi-vitamin tablets, or alternatively can be bought as pure iron tablets across the counter at chemists. This should be discussed with your doctor or midwife prior to starting.