A new European project will examine the safety and efficacy of iron supplementation in pregnant women.
Iron deficiency anaemia during pregnancy is common and can have harmful effects on the mother and her developing baby. However, if iron supplements are given, there is concern about iron overload.
It is often assumed that during pregnancy, the body's extra demand for iron can be met because menstrual losses are suspended, maternal stores are mobilised and intestinal absorption is increased. However, many women of child-bearing age have low iron stores, and this puts them at increased risk of anaemia if they become pregnant, say the researchers.
Anaemia in pregnancy is generally treated with iron supplements, although the amount prescribed varies widely. There have been concerns raised about the risks associated with overloading the body with iron because it can generate free radicals, acting as a pro-oxidant, and can interact with other nutrients, such as copper and zinc, affecting metabolism.
The project, called 'Femmes', will examine the effects of iron supplementation, on parameters such as oxidative stress and zinc and copper metabolism, in pregnant women. So far, the human studies carried out in non-pregnant volunteers have shown that iron in the gut increases lipid peroxidation, partly explaining the symptoms which occur as a result of high iron intakes from supplements. In vitro studies have also shown that antioxidants will not provide short-term protection against the effect of a high dose of iron, but that cells grown with antioxidants recover more rapidly than those without antioxidants.
Animal studies have confirmed that prenatal iron deficiency results in higher blood pressure of the offspring in adulthood and have established the relative importance of iron supplementation in early pregnancy on normal foetal development. The results of the human pregnancy studies carried out within this project will determine the effects of iron supplementation on maternal iron status during the course of pregnancy and will clarify the effects of iron supplementation on the absorption of zinc and copper from the diet.
For more information see the project website.