I have always known that I was prone to iron deficiency possibly because of my African roots. Tireness is something that I have always lived with although I never fully investigated it until I was planning to conceive. Consuming red meat at least once per week seemed to help.Recent evidence has shown that approximately 35-58% of healthy women show some degree of iron deficiency. A number of small UK studies in pregnant women have shown that the iron intake was below the recommended levels (SACN 2010). When I fell pregnant, it was a struggle to convince my midwife to investigate my iron levels because a quick glance at my Hb (which was normal) confirmed to her that there was no cause for concern. On further investigation, it turned out that my iron level was indeed low and was started on supplements. I was fully aware of the importance of iron in brain development of my baby, but I was wondering how many other young mothers slipped through the net because of a quick glance at one single marker. Whilst the routine supplementation of iron may be harmful if it is not required, appropriate use can have a lifelong positive impact.
A new study has highlighted the importance of iron status of the mother. A low iron level in babies can lead to slow development, delayed brain development such as language learning as well as behavioural problems. The most critical period where iron is absolutely essential are the weeks before conception, the first trimester and into the second Trimester. Iron deficiency that starts in the third trimester does not seem to have an impact on brain development. By studying the relationship of maternal iron intake and fetal iron levels, the researchers were able to study the most critical period during gestation when the central nervous system is at its most vulnerable. They measured the resulting brain function using auditory brainstem response analysis. It appears that it is the timing of the iron deficiency rather than the degree of deficiency which has the largest impact on the developing brain.
Exactly how maternal iron deficiency causes this effect is not clear, although the answers may lie in Epigenetics. This effect also may be more specific to particular ethnic groups.
At present Nutrigenomic testing is limited to individuals who are at risk of iron overload or Hemochromatosis.The genes tested include HFE,Tfr-2 and Ferroportin. Target groups include those individuals with a high ferritin and/or Transferrin saturation levels or those with normal iron levels but a family history of Hemochromatosis. Maybe there will come a time where we can identify those who may be at risk for low iron levels and treat or advise early.
So to boost your iron intake BEFORE you are planning to conceive, eat lean red meat, fish,fortified cereals,dark green leafy vegetables,beans,lentils and wholegrains. If possible, consume with a Vitamin C rich drink such as orange juice to enhance iron absorption.
In addition if you are planning to conceive or are in early pregnancy, insist on having your iron levels investigated if you have any concerns, or if you have had a long history of low iron intake. I would not not recommend taking a supplement unnecessarily. Once your baby has arrived, plan to breastfeed for as long as possible.