Carolina Archundia-Herrera Faculty of Agriculture, Life & Environmental Sciences

Illuminating the iron status of pregnant women and how supplements affect pregnancy and birth outcomes

Approximately 60 per cent of pregnant women in Alberta have insufficient iron levels to support a healthy pregnancy with new research suggesting that even women who eat properly and take prenatal supplements may not have the right amount of iron needed for a healthy pregnancy.

Iron is an essential nutrient needed by the body for delivering oxygen and, in pregnant women, is required to sustain periods of rapid growth and development of a fetus. 

When a mother's iron status in pregnancy is too low, complications such as low birth weight, preterm birth and pre-eclampsia—a serious condition for both the mother and baby—can arise. And while it may seem an easy fix to increase iron intake, there is growing evidence of adverse consequences associated with consuming unnecessarily high doses of iron from supplements.

“Not enough is known about the iron status of pregnant women from Canada to inform specific policies that would improve health outcomes here,” explains researcher Carolina Archudia-Herrera. She seeks to fill this knowledge gap by determining the iron status in a group of healthy pregnant and early postpartum women in Alberta, looking into the women's iron intake from diet and supplements and how these affect iron status, and whether or not women's iron status affects her pregnancy and her child at birth.

Archudia Herrera will analyze nutritional data from a province-wide initiative called Alberta Pregnancy Outcomes and Nutrition (APrON). The APrON study has already collected information from pregnant women about what they eat, the supplements they take, and their pregnancy outcomes such as weight gain or whether they had pre-eclampsia. 

APrON has also recently measured a large number of blood markers of iron status. 

“Iron metabolism is complex,” says Archundia-Herrera. “Assessing iron status in pregnant women is complicated by the progressive changes that occur as part of the normal physiology of pregnancy, therefore, there is no single ‘best’ marker of iron status in pregnancy.”

Archundia-Herrera’s research will tell us about the normal ranges of iron status of healthy women during pregnancy and how this has been affected by diet and supplement intake, helping to fill a knowledge gap. Her results will help guide further research and policies needed to improve women and children's health in Alberta and across Canada.

Carolina Archundia-Herrera is supervised by Rhonda Bell in the Faculty of Agriculture, Life & Environmental Sciences. Her fellowship has been funded by the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation and the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation through the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.