You may have heard, probably more than once, that a lot of women end up dealing with anemia in pregnancy.
Indeed, it's such a common condition that up to 95% of expectant mums face at some point of these nine magical months. Anaemia is the medical term used to describe a low rate of red blood cells or their lack of hemoglobin, the protein responsible for carrying oxygen from your lungs to the other cells and the rest of your body, including the developing foetus. Without enough of those, red blood cells and hemoglobin, supplying oxygen to your baby is more difficult, and that's why treatment is necessary.
Just think that when you get pregnant, the volume of blood in your body almost doubles its normal levels, so that it can support both you and the foetus. Because of this, the concentration of hemoglobin drops, and so does the production of red blood cells.
The symptoms of anemia in pregnancy
It's easy to be unaware of the symptoms caused by anemia, since they can easily be confused with normal pregnancy side effects, especially at an early stage. Considering that they can affect people in a different way, sometimes mild while others severe, be on the lookout for symptoms such as:
- Tiredness and general fatigue
- Irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Numb hands and feet, which may feel cold
- Low body temperature
- Trouble concentrating
- Pale skin, nails and lips
- Chest pain
Types of anemia in pregnancy
Anaemia in pregnancy can be caused by different deficiencies that, at the same time, provoke three different types of such a condition.
- Iron-deficiency anaemia: this is the most common cause of anemia, and it consists in having a lack of iron to produce enough haemoglobin. As a result, oxygen can't be carried from your lungs to the other parts of the body.
- Folate-deficiency anaemia: folate or folic acid is a type B vitamin in charge of producing cells. Doctors prescribe it to women as soon as they find out that are pregnant, because having extra folate while expecting a child is necessary to avoid certain birth abnormalities, like spina bifida.
- Vitamin B12 deficiency: vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin, because it produces healthy red blood cells. It's found in meat, dairy products and poultry, among others.
However, there are other reasons why you could have anaemia in pregnancy, such as losing a lot of blood while delivering, kidney disease and an immune disorder.
What are the risks of anemia in pregnancy?
If anemia in pregnancy remains untreated or gets worse, it can entail serious health issues for both you and your growing baby that shouldn't be ignored. There could be a delay in the baby’s development, or he or she could be born prematurely or being smaller than usual. The baby could be born with anemia as well, or suffer from a more serious condition, like spina bifida or having neural tube defects.
Not treating anemia in pregnancy could have some nasty consequences for mummy as well. It could lead to having important blood loss during labour, which could mean that you would require a blood transfusion. Besides, chances of suffering from postnatal depression could increase as a result of the extra stress and lack of energy.
How to treat anemia in pregnancy
Once you are diagnosed with anaemia, most likely through a blood test that shows the amount of haemoglobin and the percentage of red blood cells, you will have to start taking iron supplements, which may be combined with folic acid (if you have a folate-deficiency anaemia). In addition, you'll still need the prenatal vitamins that doctors prescribe in the first antenatal appointment. Besides this 'cocktail', your health provider may suggest introducing a lot of iron-rich foods into your diet, such as beef and spinach. If you happen to suffer from vitamin B12 deficiency, the treatment will be obviously based on vitamin B12 supplements and foods like meat, eggs and dairy products. Needless to say, resting will become another essential part of your treatment!
If you are given iron supplements to treat anemia in pregnancy, you'll soon realise that they bring along an annoying side effect: nausea. In fact, if you are one of those ladies who are struggling with morning sickness, this may worsen as you start the iron treatment. To cope with it, try having smaller portions of food and spread them through the day in six snack-size meals or so. Don't forget to drink a lot of water as well.
Preventing anaemia in pregnancy
After all, the best way to treat anaemia is by planning ahead and not letting it catch you by surprise. Having a balanced pregnancy diet that contains foods that are high in iron is the key to success.
Even before you are pregnant, make sure to have three servings a day that include:
- Lean red meats
- Green leafy vegetables, like spinach and broccoli
- Iron-fortified cereals
- Beans, lentils and tofu
- Seeds and nuts
You should combine these foods with others that are high in vitamin C, especially citrus fruit. This is an ideal time for you to drink lots of juices, and you should also add kiwis, tomatoes and bell peppers to your diet.
All in all, there's no reason for you to panic if you happen to have anemia in pregnancy. It's hard to find a woman who hasn't needed extra iron or folic acid while expecting a child, but that doesn't mean that anaemia has to be considered a simple anecdote. It does have risks, you've read them, and your mission is to work on preventing them by taking the right steps.