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Anemia in Pregnancy

by Katlyn Joy
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Women are prone to anemia but in pregnancy they are especially susceptible. The reason for anemia in women typically is due to their periods, when they lose both iron and red blood cells. Pregnancy may be the first and only time a woman experiences anemia however.

What is Anemia?

Anemia happens when your red blood cells are low. The job of the red blood cells is to carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. When red blood cells are depleted, you will feel fatigued as your body isn't being fueled properly.

Causes

If you don't get enough iron in your diet you can become anemic. Iron builds red blood cells so without enough of it in your diet you will be operating at less than full power.

Certain illnesses can cause anemia, such as blood diseases like thalassemia or sickle cell anemia. And while not an illness, per se, pregnancy is another major cause of anemia.

The reason pregnancy causes anemia so often is that the demands on the circulatory system increases sharply in pregnant women. Blood volume increases by nearly a third when you're pregnant.

Types

Many women in pregnancy experience mild anemia due to low iron levels. However there are a number of types of anemia. Folate deficiency anemia is due to a lack of folate in the diet. Pregnant women need to have enough folate in the diet to prevent birth defects such as spina bifida and other neural tube defects. Vitamin B12 deficiency is more common in women who don't get enough meat, eggs, poultry and dairy products. This can also cause birth defects. Vitamin B12 deficiency can also occur due to blood loss during or after childbirth.

Risk Factors

Besides pregnancy or being a vegetarian or having a blood disease, other factors can contribute to anemia. These include being pregnant twice or more in rapid succession, being pregnant with two or more babies, severe morning sickness causing you to vomit and lose your nutrients, or experiencing heavy periods prior to pregnancy.

Symptoms

Feeling tired, lethargic or weak are main symptoms but there are others. Having pale skin, nails or lips, especially a paleness that gets progressively worse is another. You may feel your heart is thumping hard, feel breathless, or have a rapid heartbeat or chest pain. You may have difficulty paying attention or concentrating for any length of time or be irritable. You may feel cold often, especially in hands or feet. However, anemia, especially mild anemia or anemia in the beginning stages may be silent with no noticeable symptoms at all.

How Anemia is Detected

Women in the beginning of pregnancy or at the first prenatal visit often have a complete blood count performed in a simple blood test. Another blood test will be done around 24 to 28 weeks as anemia is more common starting in the second or third trimester.

Risks of Having Anemia

If you are anemia you'll have a harder time fighting off infections or healing quickly from wounds. Additionally, you may have a preterm baby or require blood transfusions especially due to blood loss in delivery. The baby is also at risk for being a low birth weight even if born at term.

Prevention and Treatment

Eating a well balanced diet with plenty of iron-rich foods will often be often to fight off anemia. However, your doctor may prescribe iron or folate supplements in addition to your iron-fortified prenatal vitamin. You may need repeated blood tests to make sure you are at healthy levels. Eat some foods high in vitamin C to help iron absorption such as oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, tomatoes and orange juice. Take your prenatal vitamin or supplements at bedtime when they are less likely to upset your stomach. If you experience constipation, be sure to drink plenty of water and request a stool softener from your physician.

Foods to Help Fight Anemia

  • Iron fortified cereals and breads
  • Poultry, dark meat especially
  • Spinach
  • Whole grains
  • Oatmeal
  • Liver
  • Meat
  • Seafood
  • Baked potatoes don't skip the skin
  • Legumes and peas
  • Seeds and nuts

Sources: Hematology.org, March of Dimes, WebMD

Katlyn Joy is a mother to 7 children, and a freelance writer. She earned her Master of Arts in Creative Writing and Poetry, and a Bachelor of Arts in English and was previously an adviser to new mothers on breastfeeding through a maternity home program. She currently resides in Colorado with her family.

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