Family Health Guide

You are here

Vitamins and Supplements: Iron

Nutrient:  Iron

Why It's Important:  Iron is essential to the formation and normal function of red blood cells, including the transport of oxygen throughout the body.  It is also vital to cell growth and differentiation, making it especially important during pregnancy.  Getting too little iron can cause anemia, a common condition that develops when you don't have enough healthy red blood. Anemia causes fatigue and reduces your immunity. Women are especially vulnerable to anemia because of the blood loss that occurs during menstruation every month.

How To Get Enough...

      Before Pregnancy:  You need to consume 18 milligrams (mg) of iron per day.  Red meat, the best source of iron, contains about one milligram per ounce. Although iron in plant foods is not as well absorbed by the body as iron in meat, other iron-rich foods include fortified cereals, beans, and legumes (such as soybeans, which have about 8 mgs per 1-cup serving).  If you’re a vegan who doesn't consume any meat, fish, or dairy products, or if you have very heavy menstrual periods every month you may need an iron supplement or a multivitamin that includes iron. Consult your physician. (Don't attempt to self-treat anemia; consuming too much iron can also be dangerous.)

      During Pregnancy:  Iron needs rise from 18 mg per day to 27 mg per day for pregnant women, which is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that women start taking prenatal vitamins that contain 30 mg of iron per day beginning with their first prenatal visit. Because the higher doses of iron in prenatal vitamins can make some women nauseated or constipated, try to take your prenatal vitamin with food (to minimize nausea) and be sure to consume adequate fluids and high-fiber foods to cut down on constipation.

      After Pregnancy:  Iron needs stay elevated for a few weeks post-pregnancy. “In a normal vaginal delivery you lose about .42 to .63 pints of blood and in a normal C-section, about 1.23 to 1.41 pints of blood,” says Dr. Riley.  “Also you continue to bleed after delivery for five to six weeks. The loss of blood is offset somewhat by the expanded blood volume during pregnancy but most women are at least a little anemic right after delivery.  I recommend that women stay on their prenatal vitamins up until at least the first postnatal check-up.” In women who are breastfeeding, iron requirements drop down to 9 mg per day, because breastfeeding, especially exclusive breastfeeding, stops menstruation, so blood loss is lessened and iron needs decrease.