Iron is everything for women. In fact, I suspect that many women dealing with everything from low energy to mood issues may be actually dealing with iron deficiencies. In my work as a nutritionist, I've seen the way a simple iron supplement can completely transform a woman's health. Unfortunately, most doctors never discuss the importance of iron with their patients. Let's fix that right now! Here's what every woman needs to know about iron.
What Is Iron?
"Iron is a mineral that our bodies need for many functions," according to the National Library of Medicine. In addition, iron is found in every single cell of our bodies. We can't live without iron because it's needed to make the hemoglobin in our blood that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of our bodies.
Why Is Iron Important for Women?
While everyone needs iron, women have a special relationship with iron. According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, women are more likely than men to have an iron deficiency because they lose blood during menstruation. Pregnancy and childbirth can also cause iron deficiency. You may also be at higher risk for iron deficiency if you do one specific good deed. Yes, people who donate blood regularly are at increased risk for having low iron levels. Diet can also increase your risks for iron deficiency. According to researchers, diets of low bioavailability increase risks for iron deficiency.
Should You Take Iron During Pregnancy?
A woman needs 27 milligrams of iron daily during pregnancy. Most prenatal vitamins containing iron provide everything you need to prevent iron deficiency or anemia during pregnancy. However, your care provider may recommend that you take a separate iron supplement during pregnancy if you have certain risk factors for developing anemia. This includes having two closely spaced pregnancies, being pregnant with multiples, experiencing extreme vomiting caused by morning sickness, or dealing with a history of low iron. Severe iron deficiency during pregnancy can increase the risk of premature birth, low birth weight, postpartum depression, and infant death following birth. As a nutritionist, I can't provide you with medical advice about which supplements to take during pregnancy. However, I can say that it's worth having a conversation about iron supplements with your main care provider if you have concerns about your iron levels.
The Benefits of Iron
Living with low iron is painful. In many cases, people suspect that they are suffering from a variety of physical and mental conditions before finally uncovering an iron deficiency. Here are the benefits of getting enough iron:
- Increases energy levels.
- Reduces exhaustion and fatigue.
- Promotes proper function of red blood cells.
- Improves mental performance and clarity.
- Supports cognitive function, attention span, decision-making capabilities, and reasoning skills.
- Improves physical performance.
- Supports property function of the immune system.
- Assists with healthy pregnancy and delivery.
- May support vaccine efficacy.
Are you ready for a fact that few people know? Iron deficiency is the world's most common nutritional deficiency. According to researchers at Columbia University, about 30% of women in the United States have low iron. In fact, iron deficiency is more common in females than males.
Iron deficiency anemia occurs when the body has insufficient iron. Under the current guidelines, that means that you're deficient when your ferritin levels drop below 15 µg/L. When we don't have enough iron, our bodies can't produce proper levels of hemoglobin. Testing can be done to determine if you are suffering from an iron deficiency. However, knowing the telltale signs of iron deficiency is usually enough to determine if your iron levels are too low.
Symptoms of Iron Deficiency
Iron deficiency often begins with a general feeling of fatigue. However, you may not link the way you're feeling with your iron levels until more serious symptoms kick in. Here's a look at the most common signs of iron deficiency:
- Extreme fatigue.
- General feelings of weakness.
- Pale skin.
- Chest pain.
- Rapid heartbeat.
- Shortness of breath.
- Dizziness and lightheadedness.
- Cold hands and feet.
- A sore, inflamed tongue.
- Brittle nails.
- Poor appetite.
There's also one "odd" sign that you're low on iron. Many people with iron deficiencies will have cravings for non-nutritive substances. They will inexplicably crave dirt, sand, rocks, clay, paper, starch, or ice.
Preventing Iron Deficiency
Awareness is the first step to preventing iron deficiency. Many people don't get enough iron because they are unaware of how easily iron levels can dip. Maintaining proper iron levels can only be done by taking in enough iron. Generally, that means eating iron-rich foods. I'll cover the best foods for keeping iron levels up in the next section. It's also important to look into supplementing with iron if you fall into any of the high-risk categories for developing iron deficiency. Women with celiac disease
Crohn's disease, or a history of taking the antibiotic tetracycline are also at higher risk for developing iron deficiency. Let me make it clear that all women of childbearing age are definitely in a risk category!
How Can Women Improve Their Iron Levels?
Women can't be relaxed when it comes to their iron levels. If you're menstruating, you already have an elevated risk for having dangerously low iron levels. Women who experience heavy menstruation need to be especially vigilant about iron levels. Luckily, there are several ways that you can take charge of your iron intake to avoid the debilitating symptoms of low iron.
Eating a diet full of iron-rich foods is that primary way that women can avoid iron deficiency. There are many tasty, nourishing foods with high iron content. Here's my list of the best foods to eat when you want to increase your iron levels:
- Red meat.
- Liver and organs.
- Dark chocolate.
- Dark, leafy vegetables.
- Raisins, apricots, and other dried fruits.
- Pumpkin seeds.
- Iron-fortified cereals, snacks, breads, and pastas.
Dietary Iron Supplements
It's also important to consider using daily iron supplements. Iron supplements can be taken as capsules, tablets, chewable tablets, and liquids. You have to have the right expectations when beginning iron supplementation. In my experience with clients, iron levels usually return to normal about two months after beginning iron therapy. You shouldn't stop taking iron just because you "feel better." Generally, it's necessary to take iron supplements for up to 12 months to build up the iron stores in your bone marrow. I covered some multivitamins containing iron for women that has been a wonderful resource for our community.
Iron is generally absorbed best on an empty stomach. However, I will warn you that iron can be harsh on the digestive system. Many people experience stomach cramps, nausea, and diarrhea when taking iron supplements. You can certainly take your iron with a small amount of food if you find that taking iron on an empty stomach leaves you with painful symptoms.
How Much Iron Does a Woman Need?
You can see just how important iron is for women when you break down the recommended daily intake of iron for women versus men. Men require just 8.7 milligrams of iron daily. Women between the ages of 19 and 50 require 14.8 milligrams of iron daily. However, the recommendation dips down to 8.7 milligrams for women over age 50.
The answer depends entirely on your personal health situation! If you are suffering from low iron, you may need to take iron daily for up to a year to restore your iron level to a healthy place. It's always smart to consult with your doctor if you want to start taking iron supplements. The first step to deciding if iron is right for you is determining if you are actually suffering from iron deficiency.
Yes! Iron can help to increase energy levels, focus, concentration, and athletic ability. Low iron is one of the main causes of low energy in people. In fact, you should investigate the idea that you are suffering from iron deficiency if you currently struggle with fatigue or exhaustion.
Iron can definitely help to make your skin "look alive" again. Pale, thin skin is one of the main signs of iron deficiency.
The most common sign of low iron is tiredness. You may also feel confused and irritable. Many people with low iron also look "sickly." The only way to confirm that you have an iron deficiency is to have your iron levels tested by a doctor.
Don't let low iron levels rob you of health and vitality. Iron is so important for female health. While we don't talk about the link between iron and female health enough, the truth is that every woman of childbearing age needs to know that she is at risk for iron deficiency. I strongly recommend evaluating your iron intake if you are suffering from low energy levels, tiredness, headaches, or any of the other common signs of low iron.
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