Understanding iron supplements

Understanding the need for iron supplements during pregnancy

Women, whether they are expecting or not, need sufficient iron to keep anaemia at bay and for overall wellbeing. Iron is that essential nutrient which helps in the formation of haemoglobin in red blood cells, which in turn transport oxygen throughout your body. Plus, iron is necessary for staying energetic, focused, and for fighting infections. So naturally, the need for iron shoots up when you are pregnant, as you are supporting the needs of your foetus too. And if you are not getting enough iron from natural food sources, your doctor might suggest an iron supplement.

Since iron is not made by your body, but absorbed from the food that you eat, following a healthy diet is essential. However, iron absorption in your body might not always be satisfactory, requiring you to take a supplement. This article elaborates on that.

What is iron and why do pregnant women need it?

Iron is a mineral that is present in most of the proteins and enzymes (chemicals) that are required by the body to remain healthy. As stated before, most of the iron is found in the red blood cells in a special form called haemoglobin. The main job of haemoglobin is to supply oxygen to all the organs and tissues present in the body. The level of haemoglobin decreases if there is not enough iron in the body. And decreased levels of haemoglobin might mean less oxygen supply to the tissues and organs. When this happens, a person is said to be suffering from anaemia. This is the reason why, during pregnancy, women undergo iron level tests, so that anaemia can be detected early on and treated.

What are iron supplements?

Iron supplements are products that contain dietary iron, which must be taken in addition to a healthy diet. These supplements come in the form of powders, tablets, and syrups. They contain high amounts of easily absorbable iron that the body can take up and utilise easily.

Are iron supplements a must for all pregnant women?

Pregnant women with reduced levels of iron in their body are usually recommended to take iron supplements. Now, what you should know is that, it is difficult to get enough iron from vegetarian diets. And in India, many households follow a vegetarian lifestyle. Therefore, taking iron supplements becomes necessary.

However, not all pregnant women are required to take iron supplements. Women with normal levels of iron in their body need not go for supplements, as they will not offer any additional health benefits. The dosage of supplementation might differ based on factors like body weight, level of iron deficiency, and so on. Note that too much of iron can be as harmful as too little. Hence, the right dosage is of utmost importance.

Does iron supplementation have any side effects?

Iron supplementation might be accompanied by certain side effects, like diarrhoea and constipation. Sometimes, when the dosage is a little high, vomiting and nausea can occur. If vomiting occurs, iron must be taken in smaller amounts. Stomach cramps are also very common when you are taking iron supplements.

However, if the colour of your stools turns almost black, this is not a side effect, but a sign that the supplements are working well. When taken in liquid form, iron supplements can stain the teeth. Therefore, you should mix the liquid supplement with water or juice and consume it with a straw. Regular brushing can also prevent your teeth from getting stained.

Tips to follow while taking iron supplements

Here are a few things to bear in mind when you are on iron supplements:

  • Iron is absorbed better when taken on an empty stomach.
  • However, it should be consumed along with a small amount of food in order to avoid stomach cramps, nausea, constipation, and diarrhoea.
  • Iron supplements should not be taken along with milk or milk products, calcium supplements or any antacid. A 2-hour gap between these foods and the supplement is recommended.
  • High-fibre foods like raw fruits and vegetables should not be eaten along with the iron supplement as this may hinder the absorption of iron.
  • Drinks containing caffeine should be excluded from your diet.
  • Taking the supplement along with a vitamin C rich juice such as orange or lemon juice can help in iron absorption.
  • Drinking lots of water is also recommended to ease bowel trouble.
  • A 2-hour gap should be maintained between the supplement and any other medication.

To wrap it up

Iron is an essential mineral that is required by the body for many vital functions. During pregnancy, many women become prone to developing anaemia, and therefore, doctors recommend iron supplements. These might cause mild side effects like stomach cramps, nausea, constipation, and vomiting, but not always. Also, women with normal levels of iron do not get any extra health benefit from iron supplements. However, these can be taken if the doctor recommends them as a precautionary measure to keep anaemia at bay. So, consult your health care practitioner to decide about iron supplements and never self-prescribe!