Do all pregnant women need to take iron supplements?

Photo of someone taking tablets (PantherMedia / AndreyPopov)

Iron supplements are particularly important for pregnant women who have anemia. In women who have normal iron levels, taking iron supplements as a precautionary measure probably doesn’t have any health benefits. They can get enough iron in their diet.

Iron is a mineral that is found in many proteins and enzymes that the body needs in order to stay healthy. Most of the iron in our bodies is found inside hemoglobin, the pigment in red blood cells. Hemoglobin transports oxygen to all of the tissues and organs in the body. If there isn’t enough iron in the blood, the amount of hemoglobin in the blood decreases too. This can reduce the oxygen supply to cells and organs.

Low levels of hemoglobin are also known as anemia. At the start and towards the end of pregnancy, hemoglobin levels above 11 grams per deciliter are considered to be normal. Between three and six months of pregnancy, a small drop to 10.5 grams per deciliter is also considered to be normal.

If someone’s hemoglobin levels are lower than this, the iron levels in their blood are measured too. This can help to determine whether their low hemoglobin levels are due to a lack of iron (iron deficiency). Because the body can store a certain amount of iron, another blood value is also measured to find out how full the body’s iron stores are. If someone’s iron stores are empty but their hemoglobin levels are normal, they are said to have latent (hidden) or non-anemic iron deficiency.

Women have several blood tests during pregnancy. One thing that is tested is their iron levels, so iron deficiency anemia can be detected early on and treated using iron supplements.

Which foods have iron in them?

We normally get iron in the food we eat. Meat has a lot of iron in it, from hemoglobin in the animal’s body. Liver is particularly high in iron.

It’s harder for the body to absorb iron from plant-based foods. But some plants are good sources of iron too. These include cereals, for instance in the form of whole grain flakes (breakfast cereals), and legumes such as lentils and beans. Green leafy vegetables like lamb’s lettuce and spinach, and herbs like parsley and cress, also have some iron in them.

Illustration: Iron-rich foods - as described in the articleIron-rich foods

Iron can be taken as dietary supplements too. These are available without a prescription in the form of tablets and drops.

What are the consequences of iron deficiency in pregnancy?

Iron deficiency anemia can make you feel tired and exhausted. Severe anemia can also lead to complications in pregnancy. For instance, it can weaken the mother’s immune system and make infections more likely. It also increases the risk of the baby weighing too little at birth (low birth weight).

Severe anemia is rare in healthy pregnant women who eat a balanced diet. But anemia can cause serious health problems in women who don’t, or can’t, eat a balanced diet.

When does it make sense to take iron supplements?

A lot of pregnant women take iron supplements because they think their bodies need more iron during pregnancy. Pregnant women with normal iron levels in their blood are also often advised to take iron supplements in order to prevent anemia. Mild anemia doesn’t affect the child, though.

Anemia is only a problem if it is more severe and lasts a long time. If someone is diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia, they are usually prescribed high-dose iron supplements.

According to German health authorities, pregnant or breastfeeding women need 20 to 30 mg of iron per day. It can be particularly difficult for vegetarians to get that amount of iron in their diet alone. But iron deficiency problems would be detected in the standard blood tests.

Do women with normal iron levels benefit from taking iron supplements?

There are more than 60 studies on the use of iron supplements in pregnancy. A total of more than 40,000 women took part in the studies. The results show that, if women have normal iron levels, taking 30 mg of iron per day as a precautionary measure doesn’t have any noticeable health benefits for them or for their children. Although iron supplements were found to lower the risk of anemia, they didn’t influence the number of preterm births, the number of babies with a low birth weight (under 2,500 grams) or infections in pregnant women.

Side effects and dose

When it comes to iron intake, finding the right balance is key. It’s not only too little iron that can cause problems – too much iron can be unhealthy too. Although our bodies can store a certain amount of extra iron, higher-dose iron supplements may cause side effects. These include, in particular, gastrointestinal (stomach and bowel) problems like constipation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. When taken on an empty stomach, they can damage the lining of the stomach.

Some experts recommend only taking iron supplements once or twice a week rather than every day – but at a higher dose (such as 120 mg). Research has found that iron supplements can even prevent anemia when taken only once a week. The idea is that taking iron supplements less often will enable women to take them for longer, and lower the likelihood of side effects. But it’s not clear whether that is really the case.

Keep iron supplements out of children’s reach

Like all medications, iron tablets should be kept out of children’s reach. Even if iron is “only” a natural mineral, an accidental overdose can be life-threatening for children.

Labels: Birth, Cesarean section, Child and family health, Childbirth, D50, D64, F82, F83, F89, Morning sickness, Nausea, O09, O26, Overdue pregnancy, Pregnancy, Preterm birth, R11, Regurgitation, Reproductive health and birth, Spitting up, Women's health, Z34, Z38