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Iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia is a major health concern for women around the world, especially pre-menopausal women. It can cause a whole range of symptoms, from classic fatigue to much more extreme health conditions. The problem is it still goes quite underdiagnosed. This is everything you should know about iron deficiency and what to look out for in terms of your own health
What Is Iron Deficiency?
Anemia occurs when you have a decreased amount of hemoglobin in your red blood cells (RBCs). Hemoglobin is a protein found in your blood cells that is responsible for carrying oxygen to your tissues. Anemia can be caused by low levels of a number of nutrients, however, iron deficiency anemia is the most common. Research shows that iron deficiency affects more than 2 billion people around the world. Your body needs iron in order to make hemoglobin, so if you don’t have enough of it, that process is impeded. When you don’t have enough iron in your blood, the tissues (muscles and organs) in your body don’t get the oxygen they need to function properly. (1, 2)
Beyond simply not consuming enough iron through your diet, there are other reasons why your levels may be low. Malabsorption, as well as low levels of other nutrients that help you absorb iron, can also contribute to deficiency. For menstruating women, heavy periods can also be a cause of iron deficiency due to the amount of blood loss they experience each month. Pregnant women are also more susceptible due to their increased nutritional needs. Illnesses, medications, and poor diet can also cause deficiency.
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Symptoms of Iron Deficiency
As already stated, iron deficiency is often missed and goes undiagnosed, and therefore untreated. This is why it is important for you to be aware of the symptoms so that you can monitor your own health and therefore speak up for yourself when visiting the doctor. Understanding what the various numbers in a blood scan mean will also help you to speak up for yourself. The most common symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include:
- general fatigue
- pale skin
- shortness of breath
- strange cravings to eat items with no nutritional value
- a tingling or crawling feeling in the legs
- tongue swelling or soreness
- cold hands and feet
- fast or irregular heartbeat
- brittle nails
There are also various people who are at higher risk than others, so if you are in a higher-risk group and you are experiencing some or all of these symptoms, there’s a good chance that you have iron deficiency. Beyond those already mentioned, other higher-risk people include vegetarians and vegans, babies, children, and teenagers who are growing rapidly, adults older than 65, anyone exposed to water tainted with lead, and high-performance endurance runners.
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What To Look For On A Blood Test
Knowing the symptoms of iron deficiency is only part of the battle here. It is also important that you understand how to read a blood chart. This way you can request to see your chart and read it yourself. Often you may not fall under the parameters that your health body has set out to be considered “iron deficiency anemia”, however, your levels may still be very low. Depending on your lifestyle, this could be highly problematic. For example, if you have low iron levels and are training for a marathon, this will affect your performance and recovery in your training and competition.
The test you will need is called a Complete Blood Count (CBC). This will measure your RBCs, White Blood Cells (WBCs), hemoglobin, hematocrit, and platelets. Your hematocrit level is the percentage of your blood that is made up of hemoglobin. The CBC will also provide information on your hemoglobin level and the size of your RBCs, which can also affect iron stores.
Normal hematocrit levels for adult women are between 34.9% and 44.5%. For adult men, this is 38.8% to 50%. The normal hemoglobin range for adult women, in grams per deciliter, is 12 to 15.5. For adult men, it’s 13.5 to 17.5.
Other tests to confirm iron deficiency include the iron level in your blood, the size and color of your RBCs, your ferritin level, and your total iron-binding capacity (TIBC). Ferritin is a protein that helps your body store iron, so if it is low, iron stores will be as well. A TIBC test is to test for the amount of a protein called transferrin. This protein is the one that transports iron, so if it is low, your capacity to absorb and transport iron in your body will be low.
How To Solve Iron Deficiency
In general, iron deficiency will likely just have you feeling sluggish and not at your best. This is particularly the case for those who are trying to engage in endurance sports, where they will struggle to keep up in their training. If left untreated, however, it can lead to organ damage. It is also very hard on your heart, which has to work much harder because of the lack of red blood cells and hemoglobin. The chart below shows how much dietary iron women need in a day (3):
|Age||Women||Pregnant women||Breastfeeding women||Vegetarian women*|
|14–18 years||15 mg||27 mg||10 mg||27 mg|
|19–50 years||18 mg||27 mg||9 mg||32 mg|
|51+ years||8 mg||n/a||n/a||14 mg|
As for treatment, it will largely depend on what is causing your iron deficiency in the first place. If it is related to heavy periods, talk to your doctor about what you can do to make that better. In many cases, supplementation will be necessary. There are some over-the-counter iron supplements available. Taking these supplements on an empty stomach will increase absorption, however, they can upset the stomach. If this is the case, take them with food, preferably foods that are high in vitamin C which aids absorption of non-heme iron. Heme iron supplements are helpful because they are well absorbed and do not require vitamin C for proper absorption, however, they are animal-based and therefore not vegetarian or vegan friendly. Some people are prone to constipation when taking iron. To help avoid this some may take more “gentle” forms of iron like ferrous bisglyincate that are better absorbed and reduce the risk of gastrointestinal issues like constipation. Iron formulas are also helpful because they often contain vitamin C along with other hemoglobin-supportive nutrients like folic acid and vitamin b12.
Food sources are another great way of increasing iron take. Foods high in iron include red meat, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruits, nuts, and fortified cereals. Another suggestion to help improve absorption is to avoid drinks like coffee or tea with meals. You should, however, be careful with iron supplementation because having too much iron in your body can be just as dangerous as not having enough. Always talk to your doctor before taking any new medications or supplements.
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- “What Is Iron-Deficiency Anemia?” Healthline. Jacquelyn Cafasso and Rachael Zimlich, RN, BSN on November 22, 2021.
- “Iron Deficiency Anemia: A Common and Curable Disease.” NCBI. Jeffery L. Miller. July, 2013.
- “Iron-deficiency anemia.” Women’s Health
Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and is for information only. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions about your medical condition and/or current medication. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking advice or treatment because of something you have read here.