Anemia is a condition in which your body doesn't make enough red blood cells. Although there are many types of anemia, the most common type is iron-deficiency anemia. This form is more prevalent in women than men—about 9% to 20% of women and 50% of pregnant women develop iron-deficiency anemia.
Iron-deficiency anemia develops when you don't get enough iron to make the healthy red blood cells your body needs. The red blood cells your body does have also lack enough hemoglobin to carry oxygenated blood everywhere it's needed.
Having anemia during pregnancy can cause problems for your health as well as the health of your developing baby. Anemia in pregnancy could even lead to complications like premature birth of your baby, a low-weight but full-term baby, or postpartum depression.
Signs and symptoms of anemia in pregnancy
This condition usually starts out mild and becomes more severe as you move through later stages of pregnancy. Signs and symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia may include some or all of the following:
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Shortness of breath
- Brittle nails
- Hair loss
- Inflammation or soreness on your tongue
- Cold hands and feet
- Low body temperature
- Pale or yellowish skin
- Chest pains
- Irregular or fast heartbeat
If your iron-deficiency anemia is severe, you might also develop pica, where you crave unusual or non-food items. Ice cubes, clay, and dirt are some of the items iron-deficient women may crave.
Causes of anemia in pregnancy
The most common cause of iron-deficiency anemia in pregnancy is the increasing demand your growing baby places on your body. During pregnancy, your body requires a lot more iron to support the placenta and your baby's development.
Over the course of your pregnancy, iron requirements for the placenta amount to 90 milligrams, while your baby will need around 270 milligrams. Iron demand increases as you move through the trimesters, with the third trimester requiring the most iron.
Along with the strain of keeping up with your baby's iron needs, you may develop anemia if you don't eat enough iron-rich foods or if you eat too many foods that block iron absorption.
Additional risk factors
Beyond these common causes, you have a higher chance of developing iron-deficiency anemia in pregnancy if you have closely spaced pregnancies, are pregnant with more than one baby, experience a lot of morning sickness, or typically had heavy menstrual flows before pregnancy.
Diagnosing anemia in pregnancy
If you are pregnant and you think that you are developing iron-deficiency anemia, you should contact your doctor immediately. Your doctor will order a blood test called a complete blood count, or CBC, to check your red blood cell and hemoglobin levels.
They might also order other prenatal care tests to check your body's serum iron, ferritin, transferrin, white blood cell levels, and platelets.
Treatments for anemia in pregnancy
Iron-rich foods are important for women at any age, but you need more of them during pregnancy. While most women need about 18 milligrams of iron each day, pregnant women need about 27 to 30 milligrams of iron to support their baby.
Foods high in iron include:
- Lean red meat
- Beet greens
- Pumpkin seeds
- Lentils and beans
- Sweet potato
Foods containing calcium, such as dairy or soy products, tend to block your body's ability to absorb iron, so try to limit calcium-rich foods. Many doctors will advise limiting caffeine consumption during pregnancy to avoid potential negative effects on your baby’s growth, but coffee and tea can also prevent you from absorbing iron. If you’re drinking caffeinated beverages during your pregnancy, have them between meals. Foods rich in vitamin C, however, can help your body absorb more iron.
You should take prenatal vitamins when trying to get pregnant, but you also need them during your entire pregnancy. These vitamins not only supply you and your baby with folic acid and iron, but they also provide other nutrients like zinc, vitamin E, B vitamins, omega-3s, vitamin C, and vitamin D.
Finally, if your blood tests still show low levels of iron, your doctor might recommend that you take iron supplements to boost iron levels.
Iron pills can cause upset stomach or diarrhea, so you should always take them with food. Check in regularly with your doctor to test your blood levels to ensure you aren't taking too high a dose, since too much iron can be toxic to the body.
Mayo Clinic: "Iron deficiency anemia."
Mayo Clinic: "Iron deficiency anemia during pregnancy: Prevention tips."
Office on Women's Health: "Iron-deficiency anemia."
Texas Department of State Health Services: "How pica affects a pregnant woman and her unborn baby."
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Iron requirements in pregnancy and strategies to meet them."
University of California San Francisco: "Anemia and Pregnancy."
American Red Cross: "Iron Rich Foods."
Harvard Health Publishing: "A healthy diet is the key to getting the iron you need."
Mayo Clinic: "Prenatal vitamins: Why they matter, how to choose."
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