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Anemia is a condition in which a person has an insufficient number of red blood cells, or the oxygen-carrying capacity of red blood cells is insufficient. Though anemia can have various causes, a lack of iron is the most common reason for anemia.

Pregnant women are especially at risk, and that is why many healthcare providers recommend that expectant mothers take iron supplements.  Anemia symptoms can include fatigue, dizziness, drowsiness and general weakness to make it slightly confusing, these symptoms are not at all unlike some normal pregnancy signs.

How do you know if you've got anemia, then? You are less likely to suffer from an iron deficiency if you frequently eat iron-rich foods like leafy greens, broccoli, red meat, apricot, grapes, kelp, and egg yolks (for more info, see best iron-rich foods pregnant women). Taking iron supplements also makes anemia less likely. Still, a blood test is the only thing that will tell you if you have anemia or not. Blood work is, thus, an essential part of every woman's prenatal care and definitely not something you should skip.

Iron tablets not just for anemia

Should all pregnant women take iron supplements? Should you take iron pills even if you are not anemic? There are always discussions going on about this topic. Iron supplements do cause some side effects (hello, constipation), and iron from food sources is more easily absorbed by the body. Yet, new research from Harvard University suggests that taking daily iron supplements reduces the chances of giving birth to a low birth weight baby as well as the risk of anemia. The researchers analyzed 90 different randomized trials and studies involving more than two million women from different countries all over the world including China and Tanzania.

The research team found that even very small doses of iron reduced the risk of iron-deficiency anemia by 12 percent and the risk of having a small baby by three percent. Taking higher dosages of iron reduced the risks even further, up to a total of 66 mg of iron a day. For every 10 mg of iron taken per day, a baby's birth weight was found to increase by 15 grams. Iron pills didn't do any magic though researchers found the risk of premature birth wasn't cut. The study also said that iron deficiency is the most frequent cause of anemia in pregnant women, and that it affected 32 million expectant mothers in 2011. Those in middle and low income countries are especially at risk. The World Health Organization already recommends that all expectant mothers take 60 mg of iron a day.

Does that mean you need to supplement?

No, not necessarily. The new study shows that iron-deficiency anemia is a serious problem throughout the world. Low birth weight babies are not just small, they are also more at risk of health problems. Even a small amount of iron can have a great effect, and iron supplements could be the best way of boosting iron levels especially in countries where fresh produce and meat are expensive and a national healthcare system could provide Iron tablets free of charge.

However, food sources of iron are still more easily absorbed by the body than supplements, and they also give you all kinds of other nutrients. Taking nutritional supplements should never be seen as an excuse to eat a poor diet. Taking iron supplements during pregnancy makes perfect sense, as long as you have had a blood test and your iron levels were low or nearly too low. They should be recommended by a doctor on the basis of evidence of a deficiency, and not used as a routine measure that applies to all pregnant women. It is not clear from the study whether the reported benefits of iron supplements apply to pregnant women anywhere, or only to pregnant women in low or middle income groups (or countries). Before you stock up on iron supplements, definitely talk to your midwife or OBGYN.

You can do this even while you are still trying to conceive, so before you get pregnant. Have a blood test done and go from there. All pregnant women and everyone who is trying to conceive should also take folic acid (folate) and vitamin B12 for a better fertility and to reduce the risk of birth defects in their newly conceived embryo.

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