Women under 50? Are you Maintaining your Iron Levels?26.02.21
This article has been researched and written by Allbeing's in-house writers.
Iron: The Irony
With an estimated 1.6 billion people globally suffering from iron deficiency, several hundred million routinely manifest iron deficiency. The biggest irony here is, despite the condition being so common many people are not even aware that they might be suffering from iron deficiency! It’s possible to experience the symptoms for years without ever knowing the cause.
So, what is it and why is it so important?
Iron is a nutrient that plays a vital role in oxygen transport. It binds to hemoglobin, a special protein, and helps it to carry red blood cells from your lungs to other tissues in your body. Let’s get to the bottom of it.
- Muscle function: Muscles need iron in order to function properly. Iron is found in myoglobin, which is a muscle protein.
- Helps in the functioning of the brain: Iron helps to supply the oxygen from the blood to the brain as well. It thus, helps the brain to function properly.
- Helps in the production of hemoglobin: Iron is the part of hemoglobin that helps to provide oxygen to each and every cell of the body.
- Helps to heal the wounds: Iron helps to heal wounds as it helps to produce red blood cells. When there is a lack of supply of oxygen to the body and different cells of the body then the wounds are difficult to heal.
- Helps to regulate hunger: If you are concerned about the lack of hunger in your children then try to incorporate an iron-rich diet into their meals but also get them checked by a qualified doctor before embarking on self-treatment.
- Important For a Healthy Pregnancy: During pregnancy, iron has a significant impact on the health of the mother and the development of the baby’s brain and other organs. Therefore, it is a crucial nutrient for the baby’s neurodevelopment. Mothers lose blood during the delivery so it is important that they have near-normal hemoglobin near the term time.
Why is iron especially important for women?
Younger, pre-menopausal women, particularly those who exercise regularly, are at a higher risk of developing iron deficiency and eventually becoming anemic. On average, the adult male has about 1,000 mg of stored iron (enough for three years), whereas women have only about 300 mg (enough for six months). Menstruating women, in particular, deplete these low stores quickly because of blood loss from their monthly cycle. Women with heavy periods therefore are at a higher risk for having low iron levels.
Oral contraceptives reduce the amount of blood (and iron) loss while intrauterine devices (IUDs) tend to increase menstrual bleeding. Who would have thought your birth control might actually be affecting your iron status?
Just when you thought you were in the clear if you’re also an athlete you have an even higher risk of being iron deficient. Athletes deplete their iron stores through their sweat, destruction of red blood cells, and gastrointestinal bleeding (associated with frequent use of anti-inflammatory medications). Pregnancy and breastfeeding also increase your body’s demand for iron and can lead to low levels.
Everything you need to know about Iron Deficiency
A shortage of iron in the blood can lead to a range of serious health problems, including iron deficiency anemia.
In women of childbearing age, the most common cause of iron deficiency anemia is a loss of iron in the blood due to heavy menstruation or pregnancy. A poor diet or certain intestinal diseases that affect how the body absorbs iron can also cause iron-deficiency anemia.
Doctors normally treat the condition with iron supplements or changes to diet.
Did you know?
40%–50% of the population in developing nations remain anemic at all ages with the exception of non-elderly men whereas, the percentage of adult men who suffer from iron deficiency anemia is only 2%.
What's the Difference Between Anemia and Iron Deficiency Anemia?
Anemia is a general term that refers to a deficiency in red blood cells (the red blood cell count), or a deficiency of hemoglobin in the blood cells themselves. There are several types of anemias, and iron deficiency anemia is one of them. Since iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia, you often see the condition referred to as simply "anemia" or shortened to IDA. True iron deficiency anemia is relatively rare in developed countries, however.
In general, this deficiency is the result of an iron imbalance. You're either not ingesting enough iron or you're losing too much iron through your sweat, urine, stool, or blood loss. Insufficient iron intake or iron stores inhibit the production of healthy blood cells which decreases the amount of oxygen circulating throughout your tissues.
Medical tests are necessary to confirm an iron deficiency. A normal hematocrit reading, the number of red blood cells in your blood, runs from 35-50%. You also might have your ferritin assessed to establish how much iron you have in reserve to generate new red blood cells. A ferritin level below 20 mcg/mL indicates an iron deficiency.
Iron Deficiency Anemia
Iron deficiency anemia is a more severe form of iron deficiency that typically results from prolonged low iron status. With this anemia, your clinician will use blood tests to establish that you have a more severe deficiency that classifies you as anemic. If your hematocrit reading is exceptionally low, your physician may determine that you have iron-deficiency anemia. A very low ferritin level, 12 mcg/mL or lower, also indicates iron deficiency anemia.
Are you suffering from one? Let's Check
The symptoms of iron deficiency anemia can be mild at first, and you may not even notice them. According to the American Society of Hematology (ASH), most people don’t realize they have a mild iron deficiency until they have a routine blood test.
The symptoms of moderate to severe iron deficiency include:
- Iron deficiency can impact immune function and predispose you to recurrent infections.
- The unrelenting desire to eat or chew on ice is one of the most common symptoms of iron deficiency.
- Changes in the colour, shape, or texture of nails can be related to iron deficiency.
- Iron deficiency may affect how often you have a migraine, or a headache, and how bad they are.
- There are many reasons why you might have mouth ulcers, but one reason could be iron deficiency.
- Constantly feel mentally or physically exhausted.
- Losing clumps of hair, or more hair than normal can be a sign of iron deficiency.
- Feeling cold or being unable to regulate body temperature can be an indication of iron deficiency.
Two of the most common non-hereditary causes of hair loss are low thyroid function called hypothyroidism and iron deficiency.
But, what's the reason behind all this drama?
There are many reasons why a person might become deficient in iron. These include Inadequate iron intake, pregnancy or blood loss due to menstruation, Internal bleeding, Inability to absorb iron, endometriosis, and other such reasons.
Who all should be worried about it?
Anemia is a common condition and can occur in both men and women of any age and from any ethnic group. Some people may be at greater risk of iron deficiency anemia than others, including:
- Women of childbearing age
- Pregnant women
- People with poor diets
- People who donate blood frequently
- Infants and children, especially those born prematurely or experiencing a growth spurt
- Vegetarians who don’t replace meat with another iron-rich food
Two out of three pregnant women in their third trimester are iron deficient.
Iron Screening- Taking Care of the Basics First
Preventing iron deficiency is straightforward; get tested, get informed. Leave the hope and guesswork out of the winning equation!
Ferritin, a protein that helps you store iron safely in your blood, is a nutrient that supports another important protein, hemoglobin. Our blood is beyond the river of life in our body, it’s a sophisticated transport system of both nutrients and waste. Attached to blood cells is hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen, and is a primary target of improving performance with endurance training.
If the body doesn’t have the right amount of nutrients, the body simply can’t construct the materials to build a better aerobic engine. Every person is born with genetic gifts and limitations, something we can’t control even with the best training. What one can control is how well we train and what we do with nutrition.
Tired of Being Tired: How I Optimized My Iron Levels
Well now we all know how vital is Iron for our body in order to function properly. Thus, it’s vitally important to consume adequate amounts of it in your daily diet.
Interestingly, the foods you eat influence not only how much iron you consume, but also how well it is absorbed into your body. Once it’s absorbed by your body, it’s used as a building block for hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells that helps shuttle oxygen around your body.
DON'T MIX CALCIUM WITH IRON!!!
Calcium Interferes with Iron Absorption. If you take a multivitamin containing iron and a calcium supplement, it’s a good idea to take them at different times. High doses of calcium, especially calcium carbonate, the form found in most supplements, can block the absorption of iron.
Let's talk about Food first
You may have heard that you can get iron from red meat, but there are many other foods that naturally contain iron.
Iron: The Dichotomy
Available naturally in foods, Iron has two main types — heme and nonheme iron. Heme iron is found in animal foods, while non-heme iron comes from plant sources. The heme form is better absorbed by your body than the non-heme form.
So, we can say we have something for everyone (Vegans included!)
Good food sources of heme iron include:
- Beef, Pork, Chicken, Veal
- Fish such as halibut, haddock, perch, salmon or tuna
- Shellfish such as clams, oysters and mussels
- Red meats and organ meats
Good source for non-heme iron includes:
- Fortified cereals, rice, wheat and oats
- Dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, broccoli
- Dried fruits like raisins and apricots
- Quinoa, Pumpkin Seeds
- Tofu and Dark Chocolate
Iron supplements: the quick fix with long-term consequences
If you believe you need to supplement your diet, commercial iron supplements deliver iron in the form of ferrous fumarate, ferrous sulfate, and ferrous gluconate.
These contain varying amounts of elemental iron. Elemental iron refers to the amount of iron in a supplement that your body can absorb. Ferrous fumarate delivers the most, at 33%, and ferrous gluconate the least, at 12%.
The ideal time for taking an iron supplement is one hour before a meal, or two hours after, to ensure an empty stomach.
It’s typically recommended that children or infants not consume iron supplements and instead get iron from their diet. If your child was born prematurely or with low birth weight, speak to your healthcare provider about their iron needs.
Multivitamins typically deliver 18 mg of iron or 100% of the DV. Supplements containing only iron may pack around 360% of the DV. Getting more than 45 mg of iron daily is associated with intestinal distress and constipation in adults.
Supplementing with iron may cause constipation and intestinal discomfort, so it’s best to get iron from foods whenever possible.
But But But! Before you jump to any conclusions you must know the Dosage
How Much Iron Do You Need per Day?
The quantity of iron you should take daily depends on your age, gender, and whether you’re breastfeeding or pregnant (for women). The following table shows how much iron per day should be consumed by different groups of individuals.
The Quick and Dirty
Interestingly, the way in which your body metabolizes iron is unique, as it doesn’t excrete this mineral and instead recycles and retains it. Thus, getting too much or too little iron can be a concern.
You can have too much of a good thing
Finally, and something we actually see quite often, is taking too much iron at one time. Clinically, if you have high levels of serum iron while you are supplementing then it is a sign that might be taking too much iron at once and your system can’t do much with it. If you have high serum iron and a low ferritin level, consider breaking up your supplement into smaller doses throughout the day.
A mega dose of 65mg, which should only be taken if prescribed by your physician, is unlikely to be well absorbed.
It's also important to alert your physician to your iron levels and supplementation in case your low levels of ferritin indicate something more serious.
Knowing your iron marker levels is important. But once you know them, having the tools to improve or maintain them is just as important. If you’re supplementing iron without informing yourself properly on the same… that’s like playing Russian roulette with your health.
But beware of Iron Supplements and Iron Toxicity
Most people get plenty of iron, often too much. Yes, iron absorption can be impaired when stomach acid production is inhibited. But we can’t jump to conclusion without proper testing.
On the other hand, there are many people who are getting toxic levels of iron without even knowing it. Sure, supplementing iron even in excess will increase your ferritin. There’s no doubt about that. But, here’s why excess iron is so dangerous…
When you get too much iron, your body has a very difficult time getting rid of it. So, it ends up being stored in your organs, such as your liver, heart, and brain. This puts you at increased risk of:
- Liver disease
- Heart failure
- Neurodegenerative brain diseases
- Vitamin E deficiency
Since your body can’t rid itself of excess iron, it continues to deposit into your organs, which over time can kill you. While we need iron to live, as with everything, balance is essential.
It’s kind of like exercise. Exercise can be healthy, but in excess can be deadly too. Many look at marathon runners as in great shape and super healthy. Yet, they put such extreme stress on their bodies, that they can literally experience heart failure and drop dead shortly after a race.
Many have raised concerns of iron toxicity simply from the many foods today that are fortified with iron.
The Bottom Line
Iron deficiency is very common worldwide. Some people have obvious symptoms, while others experience none at all. Iron deficiency can impact immune function and predispose you to recurrent infections.
Common signs and symptoms include tiredness, pale skin, feeling short of breath, and dry and damaged hair and skin. If you think you have symptoms of iron deficiency, talk to your doctor.
Most forms of iron deficiency can be treated fairly easily, usually through an iron-rich diet or iron supplements, if your doctor recommends them.
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