Nourishing and keeping your body healthy is always important, but when you're growing a little human inside of you, it's worth paying extra attention to your health. Iron especially plays a huge role in the health and nourishment of your baby, because of the way it contributes to the formation of new red blood cells.
Here's a wild fact: to keep up with your body's demand while pregnant, you'll need 15 to 30 per cent more red blood cells than when you're not pregnant — so anaemia during pregnancy is no joke!
As many as one in five women develop iron deficiency toward the end of their pregnancy, so let's dive into the signs and symptoms of low iron during pregnancy.
Symptoms of low iron pregnancy
Low iron or anaemia can make us feel tired and run down during any stage of our lives — but for those who are pregnant, the symptoms can be sly. Low iron levels, also known as iron deficiency, is the most common cause of anaemia during pregnancy.
It can be tricky to suspect anaemia during pregnancy based solely on how you feel, simply because the signs and symptoms can overlap with normal pregnancy symptoms.
If your blood iron levels become severely low, you'll begin noticing more obvious and detrimental signs of anaemia during pregnancy. These can include:
- Fatigue and weakness
- Pale or yellowish skin
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
- Cold hands and feet
- Shortness of breath
- Trouble concentrating
How is low iron in pregnancy diagnosed?
If you're concerned you may have low iron or iron-deficiency anaemia, the first step you should be taking is booking into a trusted healthcare provider. Your doctor should check your iron levels during your prenatal exams, but sometimes it can be missed or develop later on.
Anaemia during pregnancy can be diagnosed by a simple blood test which assesses:
- Hemoglobin: The part of blood that carries oxygen from the lungs to tissues in the body.
- Hematocrit: This measures the portion of red blood cells found in a certain amount of blood.
What causes low iron in pregnancy?
Anaemia during pregnancy can be caused by a number of different things, so it's important to work with your healthcare provider to assess your needs after you are diagnosed.
There are several different kinds of anaemia during pregnancy including:
- Anaemia of pregnancy: When you're pregnant, the volume of blood in your body increases. More iron and vitamins are needed to make more red blood cells, and if you don't have enough iron, it can cause anaemia. Unless your red blood cell count falls too low, it's not super abnormal.
- Iron-deficiency anaemia: When you're growing a baby, your red blood cells are used for its growth and development — particularly in the last three months of pregnancy. During pregnancy, your body can dip into the reserves of extra blood cells in your bone marrow that were stored before you got pregnant. If you don't have enough iron stores, you can develop iron-deficiency anaemia. This is the most common type of anaemia in pregnancy.
- Vitamin B-12 deficiency: One of the key ingredients in making red blood cells and protein is vitamin B-12. Eating animals products like milk, eggs, meats, and poultry, can prevent vitamin B-12 deficiency and women who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet are more likely to have a deficiency in this vitamin so it's worth considering getting a vitamin B-12 shot during pregnancy.
- Folate deficiency: As a B vitamin that works with iron to help with cell growth, a lack of folate (folic acid) can cause iron deficiency. Folic acid is great for cutting the risk of having a baby with brain and spinal cord defects.
Despite the most common causes of anaemia during pregnancy, simply being pregnant increases your risk factors of iron deficiency by a lot. Your risk factor is even higher if your iron levels are already low or depleted for reasons including:
- Getting pregnant during adolescence
- Getting pregnant soon after a previous pregnancy
- Being pregnant with multiple foetuses
- Vomiting because of morning sickness
- Having a history of heavy periods
- Having a history of anaemia
- Eating a diet that is low in iron (especially being vegetarian or vegan)
- Conditions that affect nutrient absorption (such as Coeliac disease)
- Having bariatric (weight loss) surgery, such as gastric bypass, gastric banding, or sleeve gastrectomy
Does low iron during pregnancy affect the baby?
Iron plays an incredible role in keeping your baby safe in the uterus. Catalysing the formation of new red blood cells, hemoglobin — which is known as the iron-rich protein that gives blood its red colour — enables red blood cells to carry oxygen from the lungs to every single tissue in your body.
When you're pregnant, it also carries oxygen to your developing baby. During pregnancy, your body requires between 15 and 30 per cent more red blood cells than before to account for your bub and the extra oxygen your body needs.
In the formation of these extra red blood cells, your body needs iron a lot more than it did before you were pregnant. If you have enough iron reserves built up, you should be in the clear! But for those who don't have high iron levels or use up their stored iron quickly, low iron during pregnancy is a real risk.
In the final 10 weeks of pregnancy, iron is the most important as this is when your baby starts building their own iron stores for their first 6 months of life.
The good news is that mild anaemia during pregnancy won't likely cause any health issues or long-term concerns for your or your baby — but severe anaemia can be dangerous.
Severe anaemia could put your baby at risk of:
- Being born too early (premature birth)
- Being born at a low birth weight
- Developing anaemia in infancy
Severe anaemia could put you at risk of:
- Making it more difficult for your body to fight infections
- Losing too much blood during delivery
- Having restless legs syndrome during pregnancy
- Developing postpartum depression
Even if your mild anaemia issues don't seem to be affecting you from the get-go, it's worth keeping an eye on your iron levels.
Can you prevent anaemia in pregnancy?
Preventing anaemia during pregnancy can be done by taking care of your body and building up your nutritional stores before you fall pregnant.
While, of course, there are always factors outside of your control, eating a healthy and balanced diet in conjunction with a prenatal multivitamin before pregnancy can make a world of a difference.
The best sources of iron in food include:
- Meats: think beef, pork, lamb, liver, and other organ meats.
- Poultry: chicken, duck, turkey, and liver, especially dark meat.
- Fish: shellfish, including (fully cooked) clams, mussels, and oysters are good as are sardines and anchovies. It's also a great idea to include low-level mercury fish including salmon, prawns, pollock, cod and tilapia.
- Leafy greens of the cabbage family: including broccoli, kale, turnip greens, and collards.
- Legumes: lima beans and green peas, dry beans and peas, such as pinto beans, black-eyed peas, and canned baked beans.
- Wholegrain bread and rolls
- Iron-enriched white bread, pasta, rice, and cereals
- You can also boost the iron in your meals with the Lucky Iron Fish!
If you eat a plant-based diet, your iron requirements are higher again than non-plant-based mums-to-be. This is because plant forms of iron are harder to absorb than animal-derived forms. If you are vegetarian or vegan, be sure your trusted health professional is aware so that they can closely monitor your iron levels.
It's also a great idea to try and up your intake of folic acid when you fall pregnant. You can take these through supplements or find them in food including:
- Leafy, dark green vegetables
- Dried beans and peas
- Citrus fruits and juices and most berries
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Enriched grain products
How to treat low iron in pregnancy
If you find out you are iron deficient during pregnancy, your doctor will prescribe you an iron supplement and give you diet recommendations. It's important to note that iron levels can take a few months to one year to be completely restored, so it's always good to keep an eye on your iron levels as early on as you can.
Including iron-rich food products in your diet can also kickstart your body's production of iron. Focusing on dark green leafy vegetables like kale and silverbeet, red meat, pork, poultry, dried fruit and iron-fortified bread, cereal and pasta can do the trick.
You can also try your hand at taking vitamin C supplements or eating food that is naturally high in it including citrus, kiwi, melons, green vegetables, tomatoes and capsicums.
Pairing iron-rich meals with vitamin C supplements or Vitamin C rich foods like citrus, kiwi, melons, green vegetables, tomatoes and capsicums will help boost the absorption of iron.
Iron is an essential mineral for growth, yet 1 in 2 women experience iron deficiency in pregnancy. Kin's Iron Support supplement is designed to relieve fatigue from inadequate iron intake and low levels in pregnancy.
Formulated to support you during your pregnancy journey or just daily, the Iron Support relieves tiredness, supports a baby's development, sustains healthy iron levels and maintains energy production.