Iron deficiency is the most common vitamin deficiency in Australia and is even more common in women than men. In fact, it is estimated that 1 in 12 women are low in iron! This is because women’s iron levels drop when menstruating, pregnant and whilst breastfeeding.
Iron plays a very important role in the body, especially for people who are active and exercise regularly. This is because iron is responsible for the production of healthy oxygen carrying red blood cells. This means that without enough iron your body cannot get enough oxygen.
There are three stages in depleted iron levels:
Iron depletion: This is when your haemoglobin levels are normal, but the amount of stored iron your body has is low. At this stage you may not even notice any symptoms.
Iron deficiency: This is when stored iron levels are low and your haemoglobin levels have also dropped below normal. At this stage some of the more common symptoms, such as lethargy, start to take place.
Iron anaemia: This is when the levels of haemoglobin are so low that you are no longer receiving enough oxygen throughout your body. Symptoms include pale skin, especially noticeable around the eyes and gums, extreme tiredness, lack of concentration.
Causes of iron deficiency
There can be several reasons for iron deficiency. For woman one of the most common causes is due to heavy menstruation, which is why it is so common in women of childbearing age.
Other causes include:
- Inadequate diet - It is recommended that women have approximately 18 mg of iron a day. Iron is readily available in lean red meats and mollusks and is also found in poultry, pork, beans, green leafy vegetables and dried fruits. Iron is more easily absorbed from meat, which is why vegetarians and vegans need to make sure they are eating an iron rich diet. Another interesting fact is that iron needs to be ingested with vitamin C to be absorbed, so combos such as steak and broccoli, or spinach with lemon juice are both delicious and nutritiously compatible!
- Increased need - Developing children, teenagers, woman with heavy menstruation, pregnant and breastfeeding women all have an increased need for iron.
- Blood loss - Blood loss can also be another cause for iron deficiency. This can occur internally with peptic ulcers, polyps and cancers in the large intestines. Or it can occur due to regular nosebleeds, heavy menstruation, or regular blood donation.
- Inability to absorb iron - Some people who have specific digestive diseases or allergies can have an inability to absorb iron, for example people with celiac disease.
- Athletes - Because iron plays such an important role in the production of red blood cells, and can be lost in sweat, people who train hard have an increased need for iron.
Symptoms of iron deficiency
There are many symptoms that can be experienced when iron deficient, including:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Dizziness/light headedness
- Shortness of breath
- Irregular heartbeat
- Brittle nails
- Pale skin
Upping your iron levels
For many people increasing your iron levels can be as simple as adjusting your diet to include more iron and vitamin C. For other people your doctor might recommend supplements that can be purchased at your local pharmacy or supermarket. For people with more severe iron deficiency, or Iron anaemia, there are iron boosters that are injected into the body and will increase your iron levels for up to 18 months at a time.
Too much iron
On the flip side, a much less common condition is an inherited disorder known as haemochromatosis, that causes the body to absorb too much iron. Because the body cannot excrete any excess iron, it can build up in the liver and heart and cause disease in these areas. People with this disorder are advised to reduce their dietary iron intake.
So if you haven’t had your iron levels checked in the last year or two, then I recommend that you do. It is a simple blood test and can help you to adjust your diet to ensure you are getting all the nutrients you need!