Find out why iron is essential for women before, during and after pregnancy, and how to reclaim those energy levels.
Most mothers can relate to frequent energy dips, but if feeling constantly exhausted is the norm for you, then you should consider getting your iron levels checked out. Recent research has shown that only 18% of Irish women of childbearing age are getting adequate iron from their diet. Inadequate dietary iron intake can cause symptoms such as tiredness, irritability, headaches and decreased immune function. Your body tries to increase iron absorption when stores are low, but if no iron is available through diet or supplementation you might develop iron deficiency anaemia.
Iron is essential for healthy blood and normal growth and development. Because of monthly blood loss, women need more dietary iron than men. Women who lose a lot of blood during their monthly period (heavy periods) are at higher risk of iron deficiencyanaemia. We look at the reasons why iron is esssential for women before, during and after pregnancy.
Even before you become pregnant, your body needs iron for many reasons:
- It’s vital for making haemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to other cells.
- It’s an important component of myoglobin (a protein that helps supply oxygen to your muscles), collagen (a protein in bone, cartilage, and other connective tissue), and many enzymes.
- It helps to keep your immune system healthy.
How much do women need?
14.8mg a day for women (19-50 years)
8.7mg a day for women (50-64 years)
Many women need extra iron because they began their pregnancy with inadequate stores of iron. Iron requirements increase during pregnancy as maternal blood volume increases and your baby’s blood system is developing. You will have nearly 50% more blood than usual – the extra iron helps your body to make more haemoglobin.
You will need more iron for your growing baby and placenta, particularly in the second and third trimesters.
Women who are low in iron are more likely to have a premature baby and also to have babies who are a low birth weight. A smaller baby may sound like a better plan when it comes to labour, but smaller babies have a slightly increased risk of diseases like obesity and heart disease in later life.
Another issue with being low in iron in pregnancy is that the baby can’t develop their own iron stores, which means they are low in iron themselves from birth. Iron is essential for brain development in babies and toddlers.
The best source of iron is red meat, with smaller amounts in chicken and fish. Iron is also found in plant foods such as legumes, nuts, wholegrain breads and cereals, and green leafy vegetables, but it is not absorbed as well from these foods.
Iron supplements are frequently prescribed for pregnant women if they are unable to meet their requirements through food alone.
The best course of action is to get your iron checked before you become pregnant or within the first three months. If you are low in iron, talk to your doctor or midwife as you may need a supplement.
Women taking supplements are advised to drink at least six to eight glasses of liquid daily, eat high fibre foods and also take daily light exercise.
Side effects of iron supplements can vary from one woman to another and finding the right supplement is often a matter of trying a few until you find one that suits you.
Many mums become low in iron during pregnancy, but loss of blood at the birth, especially if you have a Caesarean can also affect your levels. Being low in iron will leave you feeling extremely tired as well as run down and irritable. If you are breastfeeding, you could take a vitamin supplement for mums that contains iron. Take care of yourself, and try to rest in the daytime, while your baby sleeps.
Being low in iron can affect your mood and how you bond with your baby. You may feel grumpy and irritable, and become more vulnerable to postnatal depression. Tiredness can also make breastfeeding more challenging.
Tell your doctor or public health nurse if you think you’re low in iron, so they can arrange a blood test.
If you’re diagnosed with iron-deficiency anaemia after giving birth, you will be prescribed a course of iron supplements.
Good sources of iron
Aim to eat iron-rich foods every day:
✔ liver (but avoid this during pregnancy. This is because it is also rich in vitamin A, large amounts of which can damage your unborn baby.)
✔ red meat, such as beef, lamb and pork
✔ dried fruit – such as dried apricots
✔ wholegrains – such as brown rice
✔ fortified breakfast cereals
✔ soybean flour
✔ most dark-green leafy vegetables – such as watercress and curly kale
Did you know?
Chicken and turkey legs have more iron than the
Do not drink tea with meals as all types of tea can limit the absorption of iron.
It is a good idea to eat or drink something with Vitamin C as this will help with iron absorption (eg. Fruit, fruit juice or salad).
Try these iron-rich meal:
Roasted chicken legs with a green salad
Chickpea and tomato salad
Beans on toast
Fortified breakfast cereal with a glass of orange juice
Iron is important in fertility and research has shown that women who were taking an iron supplement had on average a 40% reduced risk of ovulatory infertility than those who do not take iron supplements.
Apart from fertility, iron is also needed for proper placental development at the time of conception, efficient oxygen delivery to the baby, brain development in the baby and formation of iron stores for the baby’s first six months of life. For all of these reasons we need to ensure a diet rich in iron.
There are two types of iron in the diet. Haem iron and non ham iron. Haem iron comes from animal sources e.g. red meat, eggs, fish whereas non-haem iron comes from plant sources e.g. beans, pulses and green vegetables. We get on average about 70% of our iron from haem sources if you are a meat eater. If you are a vegetarian extra care is required to make sure you include a plant source of iron in your diet daily. Vitamin C helps us absorb iron from plant sources so adding fruit to fortified breakfast cereals and salads with beans and pulses is a good idea. Compounds called tannins in tea can inhibit the absorption of iron so avoiding drinking tea with your meals.
Aveen Bannon, consultant dietitian. Dublin Nutrition Centre (www.dnc.ie)
“I suffered with low iron in pregnancy. Extreme tiredness and headaches were the main symptoms. I was given iron infusions in hospital in the weeks before the birth to have me in a better place for my scheduled C-section.”
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