Iron Deficiency Anemia During Pregnancy

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Iron Deficiency Anemia Pregnancy

Iron deficiency anemia affects more than 50 percent of all pregnant women.

Developing anemia during pregnancy is common because a pregnant woman’s blood volume increases dramatically to support her baby’s growth and development, an increase of between 40 and 50 percent. However, the production of red blood cells does not always keep pace with the increase in blood volume. Iron is needed to make more red blood cells, but an expectant mother does not always have enough iron stored away from dietary sources.

A growing baby’s needs are always prioritized, so this shortage usually poses no risk to the baby, but the mother may develop anemia with the most notable symptom being fatigue. If anemia is not treated, it can lead to developmental problems for the baby, preterm birth, or low birth weight. Anemia can also make it more likely that a mother requires a blood transfusion during her delivery or has anemia after the baby’s birth.

Most women are tired during pregnancy: How to tell if you’re anemic?

A woman may already be anemic before she starts her pregnancy or become anemic during it. During the first prenatal visit a doctor will usually take a blood sample to determine blood type (Rh factor) as well as measure cell counts.

Since anemia can develop later in pregnancy the doctor may also test you during the second and third trimesters. While fatigue is a common pregnancy symptom, it does not always signal iron-deficiency anemia, but be sure to let your doctor know if you feel weak and sluggish. Here are a few more symptoms to look out for.

Be sure to discuss these and any other symptoms you experience with your doctor.

For most women, eating a healthy diet and taking a prenatal supplement will be enough to combat anemia, but sometimes doctors will also prescribe an iron supplement.

Who gets anemia?

While anemia is very common, there are some factors that increase the likelihood that an expectant mother will become anemic. Some medical conditions can prevent proper iron absorption and interfere with the production of red blood cells.

  • Digestive disorders such as Crohn’s disease or Celiac disease can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb iron.
  • Blood disorders such as Sickle Cell Disease or Thalassemia can interfere with red blood cell production.
  • HIV/AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, and kidney disease also interfere with the production of red blood cells.
  • A history of heavy periods is a risk factor for anemia because blood loss depletes iron stores.
  • Women who become pregnant before 20 or have pregnancies close together are also at higher risk.
  • Certain medications can affect the way nutrients are absorbed, and some gastric bypass surgeries may alter absorption rates.
  • Are pregnant with more than one baby
  • Were anemic before pregnancy

How important is diet?

Iron deficiency accounts for most cases of anemia, but a deficit is not always caused by a diet poor in iron-rich foods. You also need vitamin-C-rich foods to properly absorb the iron. Some foods or beverages—such as dairy products, coffee, and tea—can interfere with iron absorption. It’s also possible to become anemic due to a lack of folic acid or B12 in your diet.

A diet that is limited for medical reasons can make anemia more likely. Vegetarians and vegans are at a higher risk for iron-deficiency anemia than red meat eaters, but taking vitamins and eating a well-rounded diet should minimize the risk.

How do you treat anemia?

If a doctor diagnoses you with anemia, you may be encouraged to eat more iron-rich foods, such as lean meats, liver, beans, green leafy vegetables, seeds, nuts, and iron-fortified cereals. You can further boost your intake by cooking food in cast iron pans.

For most women, eating a healthy diet and taking a prenatal supplement will be enough to combat anemia, but sometimes doctors will also prescribe an iron supplement.

For best results take the iron supplement and your prenatal vitamin with a glass of orange juice since vitamin C boosts iron absorption. Wait a while before drinking milk, coffee, or tea.

Some women experience digestive problems when taking iron supplements, either because the supplement makes nausea worse or because they experience constipation and indigestion. Eating high fiber food, drinking plenty of water, and getting exercise can help, but if they don’t, ask the doctor for a fiber supplement.

It’s a smart idea to continue taking the iron supplement after the birth, if you’re breastfeeding, since your body needs to rebuild your iron stores.

Joan MacDonald
Joan Vos MacDonald has written about health and fitness for newspapers, magazines and websites. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and the author of two books on health-related topics, "Tobacco and Nicotine Dangers," for young adults, and "High Fit Home," a design book about fitness and architecture. She lives in upstate New York near her children and grandchildren.

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