Preventing iron deficiency during pregnancy reduces health risks for moms and babies
Healthy development – Iron deficiency
It is commonly known that iron deficiency can pose a threat to our health. But new research by pharmacologist Dr. Stephane Bourque suggests we may be most vulnerable to iron deficiency before we are even born.
Dr. Bourque is studying the problem of iron deficiency during pregnancy — its effects on both the fetus as it develops and on that individual’s long-term health. He’s also exploring therapies to help prospective mothers avoid this risk to their unborn children.
Women already face higher rates of iron deficiency, thanks to menstruation. The demands of pregnancy boost that risk even higher. Iron deficiency can contribute to premature birth, low birth weight, and even an increased chance of maternal death, particularly in developing countries.
To make matters worse, pregnant women often have no idea their iron levels are low. “You can have a lot of cases where you have iron deficiency, but you don’t have the signs of anemia,” Dr. Bourque points out.
Even if a pregnant woman isn’t visibly anemic, iron deficiency can slow the growth rate of her baby, with potential lifelong consequences. “Altered fetal growth trajectories can really impact the long-term health of the offspring,” says Dr. Bourque. “We’re talking about an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and metabolic dysfunction, such as a propensity towards obesity and type 2 diabetes. This can also increase the risk of cognitive and behavioural problems, areas that need to be explored much more fully.”
According to the World Health Organization, nearly one in four women are anemic in Western countries. In the developing world, that number can rise to 50 or even 80 per cent. “That’s a huge, huge problem. Given what we’re learning about anemia and its impact on long-term health, you’ve got a problem that could be contributing substantially to the burden of chronic diseases for the next generation,” says Dr. Bourque.
An alarming prospect, to be sure but, on the other hand, a bit of prevention could make an enormous difference. “Instead of somebody developing cardiovascular disease, where you need a whole lifetime of treatment, maybe the right nudge at the right time could shift them back onto course.”
If the problem is iron deficiency, couldn’t that “nudge” be a simple multivitamin? “Iron supplements sound like a simple solution,” Dr. Bourque agrees. “The problem is, once iron deficiency develops, you’re already behind the game. It takes a long time to develop, and it can take a long time to fix.”
Dr. Bourque’s team is looking at whether resveratrol — a compound found in grapes and other plants — may help to overcome fetal iron deficiency. The team is also studying the repercussions of iron deficiency in the womb in adulthood and old age.
Dr. Bourque’s research is made possible through the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation and the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation, which provided a much-needed start-up grant and a subsequent Innovation Grant through WCHRI.
“Without this support, we couldn’t do the work that we do,” Dr. Bourque says simply.