Every pregnancy is different. But there are a few things most women can expect. An increased risk for anemia is one of them.
When you’re pregnant, you may develop anemia. When you have anemia, your blood doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to your tissues and to your baby.
During pregnancy, your body produces more blood to support the growth of your baby. If you’re not getting enough iron or certain other nutrients, your body might not be able to produce the amount of red blood cells it needs to make this additional blood.
It’s normal to have mild anemia when you are pregnant. But you may have more severe anemia from low iron or vitamin levels or from other reasons.
Anemia can leave you feeling tired and weak. If it is severe but goes untreated, it can increase your risk of serious complications like preterm delivery.
Symptoms of anemia during pregnancy
Early on, you may mistake symptoms of anemia for normal symptoms of pregnancy; some pregnant women are completely unaware they’re anemic until it’s revealed in a blood test. But as the condition progresses, you may experience:
- Excessive tiredness
- Shortness of breath
- A rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Numbness or a cold feeling in your hands and feet
- A low body temperature
- Pale skin
- Chest pain
- Irritability (due specifically to a B12 deficiency)
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms and are concerned it might be anemia, be sure to let your doctor know.
Types of Anemia during Pregnancy
Several types of anemia can develop during pregnancy. These include:
- Iron-deficiency anemia
- Folate-deficiency anemia
- Vitamin B12 deficiency
Here’s why these types of anemia may develop:
Iron-deficiency anemia. This type of anemia occurs when the body doesn’t have enough iron to produce adequate amounts of hemoglobin. That’s a protein in red blood cells. It carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.
In iron-deficiency anemia, the blood cannot carry enough oxygen to tissues throughout the body.
Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia in pregnancy.
Folate-deficiency anemia. Folate is the vitamin found naturally in certain foods like green leafy vegetables A type of B vitamin, the body needs folate to produce new cells, including healthy red blood cells.
Vitamin B12 deficiency. The body needs vitamin B12 to form healthy red blood cells. When a pregnant woman doesn’t get enough vitamin B12 from their diet, their body can’t produce enough healthy red blood cells. Women who don’t eat meat, poultry, dairy products, and eggs have a greater risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency, which may contribute to birth defects, such as neural tube abnormalities, and could lead to preterm labor.
How to prevent anemia when you’re expecting
While not all cases of anemia are preventable, getting enough iron in your diet goes a long way in helping you to avoid the condition. Before you’re pregnant, that means consuming 18 mg of iron per day; once you do conceive you should aim for 27 mg. While prenatal vitamin covers your bases — along with your requirements for other important nutrients like folic acid and vitamin B12 — you should also try to eat a variety of healthy foods that are high in iron. These include (note all measurements are approximate):
- Liver (5 mg in 3 oz of beef liver)
- Beans and legumes (4 mg in 1/2 cup of white beans; 3 mg in 1/2 cup of lentils)
- Green leafy vegetables (6 mg in 1 cup cooked spinach)
- Seeds and nuts (2 mg in 1 oz or 18 cashews)
- Dark chocolate (7 mg in 3 oz)
- Iron-fortified cereal (18 per serving)
- Baked potato (2 mg for a medium spud)
Cooking in cast iron cookware may also help give your iron intake a little boost, since foods absorb some of the iron from the pan. Also note that animal-based (meat) iron is absorbed by the body better than plant-based iron.
Though anemia during pregnancy can be scary, rest assured it’s also easily diagnosed and treated.