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May 2018 Print
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Why monitoring your iron levels is crucial to women’s health in pregnancy

Iron—that heavyweight essential mineral powering the haemoglobin in your red blood cells—is essential for the creation of those workaholic cells carrying oxygen around your body. A lack of it may cause anaemia, leaving you feeling tired and less able to fight off infections, yet deficiencies are often not evident with significant clinical symptoms easily going undiagnosed.[1]

Around 760,000 Australians aged 18+ are at risk of anaemia and the scales tip towards women[2]

Iron is also vital during key growth stages from pregnancy to toddlers and teenage years with suboptimal levels having the potential to impair growth and development. Iron deficiency anaemia is common during pregnancy and one of the leading causes of anaemia in infants and young children.[3]

Studies have found that many women go through their entire pregnancy without absorbing the minimum required intake of iron – and this global nutritional problem is affecting up to 52 per cent of pregnant women[4]. Paleness, fatigue, shortness of breath and restless legs syndrome are all common but often overlooked symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia[5] while lack of proper weight gain during pregnancy is a key predictor[6].

Pregnancy and lactation increase iron demands and nutrition is key to preventing deficiency[7]

Mum’s blood volume is increasing and baby’s blood is developing requiring more iron in support. Anaemia during pregnancy can also persist post-birth affecting the baby’s own iron stores. The World Health Organization recommend daily iron and folate supplementation during pregnancy to help prevent maternal anaemia, low birth weight, and pre-term birth. Folate should also be commenced early (ideally before conception) to prevent neural tube defects.[8]

There are two types of iron in food: Iron from animal foods (haem iron), which is taken up by the body about ten times better than iron from plant foods (non-haem iron) and the redder the meat, the higher it is in iron.[9] Beef, kangaroo and lamb are the best sources and if you don’t eat red meat then coloured fish like tuna and mullet are good alternatives. Ensure you enjoy your iron-rich foods in conjunction with those boasting high levels of Vitamin C (orange juice, lemon, tomato, broccoli or capsicum) to increase absorption and for collagen formation supporting blood vessels.

While absorption of iron is better from animal foods than plant sources, it can also be found in leafy green vegetables, legumes, nuts, dried fruits and iron-enriched cereals and breads. Iron-rich vegetarian foods include kelp, molasses, Brewer’s yeast, pumpkin seeds, cashews, Jerusalem artichokes, Swiss chard, dandelion greens, prunes and dates. Unfortunately tea, coffee and unprocessed bran can inhibit iron absorption so try to limit or remove from your diet during pregnancy to optimise your iron.[10]

Also fill up on folate and enjoy a wide balance of nutritional support

Clean, natural and unprocessed is key to any healthy diet but look for organic, free-range and grass-fed where possible to minimise exposure to toxins. In addition you may benefit from additional supplementation throughout your pregnancy. And speak with your medical practitioner to ensure you are getting all the nutritional support you need for proper postnatal recovery and your baby’s growth and development. 

In particular, folate, a B-group vitamin needed for healthy growth and development, can be found in broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, English spinach, green beans, lettuce, mushrooms, sweet corn, zucchini, avocado, oranges, legumes and eggs – so there’s plenty of foods to supporting your health this way. Ensure you also have adequate intake of other B vitamins to help protect from birth defects, Iodine to support thyroid production, Zinc to help regulate rapid cell growth of pregnancy and Vitamin D and Calcium for bones and teeth.[11]

Consider a prenatal and pregnancy multivitamin and fish oil formulated for pregnancy with DHA and Choline to support healthy neurodevelopment. Please ensure supplementation is under the guidance of your medical practitioner, especially if you suffer from gastrointestinal conditions that may contribute to malabsorption such as gastrointestinal bleeding and Coeliac Disease; and haemochromatosis – the most common genetic disorder in Australia that causes iron toxicity.[12]

[1] Queensland Government, Iron for pregnant women, October 2015, viewed 7 March 2018

[2] Australian Bureau of Statistics. Australian Health Survery: Biomedical Results for Chronic Diseases, 2011-2012. Australia: ABS; 2013

[3] N. Abu-Ouf, M Jan, The impact of maternal iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia on child’s health, Saudi Medical Journal, 2015; 36(2): 146–149. doi:  10.15537/smj.2015.2.10289, viewed 6 April 2018

[4] World Health Organisation. The global prevalence of anemia in 2011. 2011. http://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/micronutrients/global_prevalence_anaemia_2011/en/

[5] Lopez A, Cacoub P, Macdougall IC, Peyrin-Biroulet L. Iron deficiency anaemia. The Lancet. 2016;387(10021):907-16, 10.1016/s0140-6736(15)60865-0.

[6] N Abu-Ouf and M Jan, MBChB, The impact of maternal iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia on child’s health, Saudi Med J. 2015; 36(2): 146–149. doi:  10.15537/smj.2015.2.10289

[7] Abu-Ouf, Jan, ibid.

[8] World Health Organization, Daily iron and folic acid supplementation during pregnancy, viewed 7 March 2018

[9] Queensland Government, ibid.

[10] Pregnancy Birth & baby, Vitamins and nutrition in pregnancy, Health Direct, November 2016, viewed 7 March 2018

[11] Pregnancy Birth & baby, ibid.

[12] Haemochromatosis Australia. Genetics of haemochromatosis Australia: Haemochromatosis Australia; 2017  

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