Iron in Pregnancy – Are You Getting Enough?

We hear a lot about the importance of iron, particularly during pregnancy, for healthy growth, development and energy.

Iron is key to the development of DNA for growth as well as supporting energy production.

Iron helps to transport oxygen around our body into cells where it’s needed to carry out vital functions. It also helps carry the waste product, carbon dioxide, back to the lungs for excretion.

We know iron is important, but how do you know if you’re getting enough? Can you have too much? Can you get enough from your diet or should you supplement?

How do I know if I’m iron deficient?

The most common symptom of deficiency is tiredness and lack of energy. Other symptoms include paleness, weakened immune system and brittle nails. However these symptoms are very general and can also be caused by many other factors so a simple blood test from your GP is the best way to confirm your levels.

Do I need more iron in pregnancy?

Iron is particularly important during pregnancy, especially the second and third trimester, due to its role in DNA creation and growth.

DNA is the genetic ‘blue print’ upon which all our cells are built.   To synthesise DNA our body requires iron. Iron is also required for protein metabolism, which further supports growth and development.

How much iron do I need?

Age Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) Upper Safe Limit (UL)
Women 19-50 18 mg/day 45 mg/day
Women 50-70+ 8 mg/day 45 mg/day
Pregnancy RDI UL
14+ 27 mg/day 45 mg/day
Breastfeeding RDI UL
14-18 10 mg/day 45 mg/day
18-50 9 mg/day 45 mg/day

What are the best sources of iron?

Good dietary sources of iron include:

Chicken Liver Beef Oysters
Turkey Tuna Pork Fish
Soybeans Lentils Kidney Beans Molasses
Spinach Tofu    

Do I need an iron supplement?

The average Australian diet provides around 15 - 20mg of iron per day.

In times of increased need such as pregnancy, the body has the ability to absorb more iron from the diet to help support this increase need, however supplementation can also be beneficial to support healthy levels.

Nevertheless, not all supplements are created equal. Many iron supplements are poorly metabolised and commonly cause side effects such as nausea and constipation. It’s best to look for a supplement that provides iron in the form of ‘iron amino acid chelate’. Chelated iron preparations are the easiest absorbed forms of iron and help avoid gastric disturbance.

Ideally a good supplement should also provide vitamin C, vitamin B12 and folate to optimise absorption. During pregnancy, it’s best to take iron within a good prenatal multivitamin for a balanced intake of all essential nutrients. Supplementing between 10 – 25mg particularly during the second and third trimester is recommended to help support healthy development. No more than the Upper Safe Limit (UL) of 45mg per day should be taken unless under medical supervision.

What happens if I take too much iron?

As iron is so essential to human life, to help ensure levels never become depleted, our body actually has no means by which to excrete iron. However, iron is a heavy metal and can be potentially toxic if levels build up. For this reason uptake is tightly regulated by the body. If iron stores are high, the body actively decreases the amount of iron absorbed therefore toxicity via dietary sources is unlikely. However this absorption process can’t be shut off entirely and stores can build up if excess supplemental iron is consumed.

Excessive amounts of iron in circulation can cause critical damage to vital cells in the liver, heart and other vital organs.

This is why, unlike other most other vitamins and minerals, iron carries an Upper Safe Limit for supplementation and high doses are not recommended unless under medical supervision as they can be harmful.

About the Author:

Tasha Jennings holds degrees in naturopathy, nutrition and herbal medicine with over 10 years experience in the field. She is also a health writer, published author (The Vitamins Guide) and speaker. As a new mum herself, Tasha now specialises in fertility, pregnancy and breastfeeding as Managing Director of Zycia Premium Pregnancy Nutrition. Tasha enjoys using her knowledge to support other new mum’s and mum’s-to-be during this exciting, often overwhelming, time.