After a routine exam, your doctor tells you that you’re anemic.
Anemic? What does that mean? Is my baby at risk?
The good (and bad) news is that anemia is fairly common during pregnancy, and your doctor can recommend treatment options to help alleviate the condition.
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What Is Anemia?
Anemia occurs when either your red blood cells don’t have enough hemoglobin, or you have too few red blood cells. FYI: Hemoglobin is the protein responsible for carrying the oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body.
Needless to say, hemoglobin is important, and if you don’t have enough of it, it will be much harder for your body to stay oxygenated.
What Causes Anemia during Pregnancy?
In most cases, anemia is caused by low iron levels. Pregnancy-induced anemia is incredibly common, and tends to be an issue during the second and third trimesters.
When you’re pregnant, your blood volume increases by about 50% in order to support you and your growing baby. But as your blood flow increases, your hemoglobin concentration is diluted. Iron is needed to make hemoglobin, so an iron deficiency can easily lead to anemia.
When iron levels are low, it typically leads to slower red blood cell production and decreased oxygen levels.
Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia, but it may be caused by another vitamin deficiency, such as folic acid or B12 – although this is much less common.
- Folate, a.k.a. folic acid, helps the body make new cells, including red blood cells. You need extra folate when you’re pregnant, and if you’re not getting enough of this vital nutrient, your body can’t produce enough healthy red blood cells. Aside from anemia, folate deficiency can also lead to birth defects, like spina bifida, and low birth weight.
- The body also needs vitamin B12 to create healthy blood cells, so if you’re not getting enough B12 from your diet, your body can’t produce enough red blood cells. A deficiency in this vitamin can also lead to birth defects as well as preterm labor. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you’re at a much greater risk of being B12 deficient.
Other causes include:
- Blood loss
- Sickle cell anemia
- Kidney disease
- Another immune disorder
While an iron deficiency is easy to correct, the other possible causes for anemia are serious. For this reason, it’s important to see your doctor to determine the root cause of the problem.
Symptoms of Anemia
The symptoms of anemia are not always easy to detect because they’re so easily confused with typical pregnancy symptoms, especially early on.
Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Excessive fatigue
- Shortness of breath
- Numb or cold hands and feet
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Pale skin
- Low body temperature
A blood test can confirm whether you’re anemic. Your doctor will run a CBC (complete blood count) to check your red blood cell count. If it’s low, you will be diagnosed with anemia.
A CBC test is a standard test early on in the pregnancy, usually at your first appointment as your doctor performs pregnancy blood work. But you’ll be tested again at 28 weeks to check on your levels.
Who’s at Risk for Anemia?
Anemia can affect any woman during her pregnancy, but there are certain factors that may put you at greater risk for developing this condition. These include:
- Having multiple pregnancies close together
- Pregnant with multiples
- Pregnant teens
- Frequent vomiting due to morning sickness
- Not eating enough iron-rich foods
- Having anemia before pregnancy
What Are the Risks of Anemia?
If you’re doctor tells you that you’re anemic, your thought is: will my baby be okay?
Regardless of how long you’ve been anemic, it’s unlikely that your baby has an iron deficiency as well. The fetus takes all of the iron it needs first, so mom is probably the only one to suffer with low iron levels.
But if left untreated, anemia can lead to several complications, including:
- Preterm birth
- Poor growth development
- Low birth weight
- Increased risk of needing a blood transfusion during labor
Anemia also increases your risk of developing postpartum depression.
The good news is that anemia rarely goes undetected and untreated for long. Remember, your doctor will run a CBC early on in your pregnancy and again at 28 weeks. As long as you follow through with your prenatal care, your doctor should detect and treat the condition early on before it becomes a serious issue.
3 Ways to Treat and Prevent Anemia
The good news is that there several ways to treat and prevent anemia, so you can go on to have a healthy, happy pregnancy.
1. Iron Supplements
The first and most obvious treatment option is an iron supplement. If your iron levels are low, supplementation is the most efficient way to resolve the issue.
Your doctor may prescribe you with a daily iron supplement to take in addition to your prenatal vitamin. Make sure that you take both if that’s what your doctor recommends.
Doctors recommend taking iron supplements with orange juice because of its high vitamin C count. Vitamin C makes it easier for the body to absorb iron. Prune juice is another good option, and can also help prevent constipation, which is often caused by higher iron levels.
Other foods that are high in vitamin C include:
- Citrus fruits
- Bell peppers
Side Effects of Iron Supplements
Although supplementation can help raise your iron levels quickly, they can also produce some unpleasant side effects. Some pregnant women may develop:
- Stomach ache
Iron supplements can also make your stool darker, almost black in color.
Although uncomfortable, it’s important to continue taking your iron supplements to prevent complications down the road. Eventually, these side effects will settle down, and you’ll feel normal again.
While it’s best to take iron supplements on an empty stomach, your doctor may recommend taking them with a meal or afterward to prevent discomfort. If you still find no relief, tell your doctor. He may reduce the dosage level to minimize side effects.
If constipation is an issue, try eating more foods that are high in fiber, such as:
- Whole grains
2. Lay Off the Dairy When Eating Iron-Rich Foods or Taking Supplements
Whenever you take your prenatal vitamins, iron supplement and/or eat iron-rich foods, avoid consuming any dairy. Dairy actually interferes with iron absorption.
Coffee and tea also have the same effects, so be cautious when consuming these drinks (you should probably lay off the caffeine anyway).
You’ll also want to avoid:
- Antacids and PPIs (proton pump inhibitors). The magnesium salts and zinc in these medications interfere with iron absorption.
- Wholegrain cereals. While a good source of iron, whole grains contain phytates that make iron difficult to absorb.
3. Eat Plenty of Iron-Rich Foods
Aside from supplementation, making diet changes is one of the most effective ways to correct anemia caused by low iron levels.
Iron-rich foods include:
- Lean red meat
- Green leafy vegetables
- Iron-fortified cereals
- Nuts and seeds
Iron from animal sources (i.e. meat and eggs) is better absorbed by the body than plant-based iron.
Doctors recommend aiming for three servings of iron-rich foods per day, or about 27 mg of iron.
Anemia is common during pregnancy and with the right treatment, can be easily overcome. Most moms go on to have a healthy pregnancy under the watchful eye of their doctor. If you suspect that you might be anemic or are experiencing any of the symptoms above, please see your doctor right away.
If left untreated, anemia can cause unwanted complications and may be caused by something other than low iron levels. The only way to know for sure is to have your doctor run a blood test, so make an appointment for a check-up if you have symptoms of anemia.