Iron for Women
"Globally, one in three non-pregnant women, corresponding to almost 500 million women, were anaemic in 2011. At least half of this anaemia burden is thought to be due to deficiency in iron." (WHO, 2020).
As someone who has a family history of low iron and has been borderline anaemic more than once - I'm all too familiar with what low iron feels like. Unfortunately, it's not just as simple as taking a supplement to fix it! Iron can be affected by diet, exercise, inflammation and other disease states. It's commonly associated with low energy but that's not the only thing iron does in the body. That's why I get iron tests done for almost every female client I see - to ensure their levels are optimal (and not just "in range").
But why do we need iron?
Iron increases resistance to infection - a deficiency can cause reduced work productivity, reduced physical fitness, weakness, fatigue, impaired cognitive function, impaired immunity, reduced learning ability, increased distractibility, impaired coordination, pale nail beds, hair loss and reduced resistance to cold temperatures.
How can we avoid iron deficiency?
Certain foods and drinks help your body to absorb greater amounts of iron, including:
Vitamin C, found in raw fruits and vegetables, increases iron absorption.
Animal protein boosts iron absorption from plant sources.
In most cases, cooking increases the amount of available non-haem iron in vegetables. For example, the body absorbs six per cent of the iron from raw broccoli, compared to 30 per cent from cooked broccoli.
Iron needs adequate amounts of copper to reach some of its intended destinations, such as the brain but thankfully in Perth we have a lot of copper pipes for plumbing so shouldn’t need extra copper unless you're only drinking filtered water.
Lactoferrin supplementation increases absorption.
Generally, haem iron (from animal sources) is easier for the body to absorb.
Certain foods and drinks reduce your body’s ability to absorb iron, including:
Soy proteins can reduce absorption from plant sources.
Tannins from tea, coffee and wine reduce iron absorption by binding to the iron and carrying it out of the body prior to uptake.
The phytates and fibres in wholegrains such as bran can reduce the absorption of iron and other minerals.
Vitamin A helps to release stored iron, so not enough vitamin A in the diet could lead to iron deficiency.
Calcium and phosphorus reduce the absorption of plant-sourced iron. Eat foods high in these away from foods high in iron.
So how much do we need?
Adult women of menstruating age require at least 18mg of iron daily. Look at the following list for how you can add more iron to your diet (hint; it's not always meat!):
3 dried Turkish apricots
6 medium oysters
½ cup cooked lentils
1 cup cooked quinoa
½ cup cooked spinach
100g lean beef
1Tbsp chia seeds
100g lean pork/lamb
1 cup cooked brown rice
1 large egg
But what about iron supplements?
Yes, some people do require supplementation. Due to my history, I take iron every second day (which can work better for some people but that's another story). BUT! It's important to check with your GP and a qualified nutritionist or naturopath as to whether iron supplementation is for you and what your best options would be. Never take iron supps without knowing your levels are low to begin with as confusingly, iron excess can present a similar symptom picture to iron deficiency.
How long until I feel the effects of increased iron intake?
Iron travels around on the red blood cells in the body - these cells have about a 90 day lifespan. Once a red blood cell is made it has all the iron it will take on board - new red blood cells are created daily and uptake more iron until they are saturated. So it will take about 3 months of supplementation or increased dietary iron intake to really noticeably improve your symptoms because this is how long it takes to completely refresh all the red blood cells in your body. Though I find for myself, I notice improvements around the 2 month mark.
Having said that, other conditions must be ruled out (such as Coeliac's Disease) as this can affect your body's ability to absorb, uptake and store iron.
If you're experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned in this article and you think it may be your iron levels - head to your GP for some testing.
Image credit: Heather Gill via Unsplash