Are you getting enough iron? Odds are, it's a question you've been on the receiving end of before, whether from your doctor, coach or even your grandmother.
Iron deficiencies can feel like a catch-all armchair diagnosis for anything from fatigue to weight loss, but there's a reason for that. Iron deficiency anaemia is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world and one that tends to affect more women than men .
So, what is an iron deficiency and why does it leave us feeling so depleted? And most importantly, how much iron do we need to feel better?
What is iron and what does it do?
Put simply, iron is a mineral that helps your body to function. It forms a major component of haemoglobin, a type of protein in red blood cells that has the very important job of carrying oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. An iron deficiency means there aren't enough red blood cells to transport that oxygen around your body .
On top of that, iron also forms a part of myoglobin, a protein that carries and stores oxygen specifically in muscle tissues . In other words, it might not keep you breathing exactly, but iron is what puts those breaths to work.
What causes iron deficiency?
When we talk about the causes of iron deficiency, we're talking about a lot of things, from losing iron naturally through sweat, to shedding intestinal cells, to blood loss .
What this looks like varies from person to person, and how much iron is lost tends to depend on your iron reserves and general health. Generally speaking though, the 3 main causes of iron deficiency are:
In other words, you might not be eating enough iron-rich foods. Our body does not produce iron on its own, which means we have to eat food that contains iron to replenish our body's iron stores.
Luckily, a lot of food contains iron, particularly animal protein, and iron-fortified cereals, but more on that shortly.
As iron is absorbed through the stomach and bowel, some conditions that affect those organs can impact our body's ability to absorb iron.
Chronic diseases such as Coeliac disease, Crohn's disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and chronic pancreatitis can all be an underlying cause of iron deficiency, making an iron deficiency both a symptom and a new condition .
If you are concerned about any of these conditions, you should speak to your doctor immediately.
Iron, when put to work, is in your red blood cells, which are in the blood, so any sort of blood loss means you'll lose iron too. This can be any sort of blood loss, from heavy menstrual bleeding to giving blood to childbirth to surgery, to ulcers of bowel polyps .
Understanding how these sorts of blood loss can impact your iron stores and iron levels are crucial to preventing an iron deficiency.
What is considered a low iron level?
Ultimately it depends on numerous factors, particularly gender and health, but generally speaking, a sign of having an iron deficiency is having haemoglobin levels below 13g/dL for adult men, 12g/dL for women and 11g/dL for pregnant women .
What is a normal level of iron for women?
A crucial factor in developing low iron levels comes from menstruation, with menstruating people typically needing more iron than people who don't menstruate.
The recommended dose is 1mg per day for adult males, postmenopausal women and other people who don't menstruate, and 1.5mg per day for people who do menstruate .
Babies and toddlers being given cow's milk, adolescent girls and pregnant and breastfeeding women are also more likely to need higher intakes of iron .
How can I tell if I might be deficient in iron?
Luckily, iron deficiency anaemia comes with a whole host of symptoms that can help you to determine whether you have an iron deficiency. These include:
- Feeling tired, weak or fatigued
- Breathlessness and difficulties doing exercise
- Having an irregular heartbeat
- Feeling dizzy or light-headed
- Having brittle nails
- Poor memory and concentration
- Troubles completing tasks and focusing at school or work
- Getting infections frequently
- Behavioural problems in children, and
- Decreased sex drive .
If you're pregnant, you may experience additional symptoms, such as:
- Struggling to gain weight
- Sleeping difficulties
- Fainting .
Are some women more at risk of developing an iron deficiency?
They are! In particular, as mentioned above, menstruating women need more iron to make up for the iron they lose during their periods, but pregnant women and breastfeeding women are also at high risk for iron deficiency anaemia as the body has an increased demand for iron during gestation .
These lowered iron stores during pregnancy can cause a whole host of problems for both the mother and the baby, and iron deficiency anaemia has been linked to increased morbidity and foetal death.
Affected mothers have the risk of developing perinatal infection, pre-eclampsia, bleeding, premature labour, intrauterine growth retardation and low birth weight, making this a serious concern for new mothers.
A recent study in the UK found that 50% of women of reproductive age had poor iron reserves, and were at risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia if they conceived .
Maintaining healthy iron levels is crucial to living a healthy life, but monitoring that iron status while trying to conceive and in the first trimester of pregnancy is really important for a successful, full-term pregnancy .
Ways to help you boost your iron levels
Luckily, there are lots of ways to prevent iron deficiency and to get those iron levels back to a positive and normal range.
In particular, adjusting your diet can be a great place to start to bring your body's iron to normal levels. A healthy body absorbs about 18% of the available iron from a typical western diet, and about 10% from a vegetarian diet .
Depending on how much iron is in your iron stores, your body can absorb less iron from the foods you eat. There are plenty of ways to address this though, in particular:
- Eat more iron-rich foods such as red meat, whole grains and dried beans
- Increase your dietary intake of vitamin C, which helps with iron absorption, and vitamin A intake, which helps release stored iron
- Cook plant sources of iron (such as broccoli) as many vegetables release more iron when cooked than when eaten raw
- Reduce your dietary intake of food and drinks that prevent iron absorption. Some of these include:
- Soy proteins
- Tea, coffee and wine
- Phytates and fibres found in whole grains
- Calcium and phosphorus .
If you feel you are still not getting enough iron, or still experiencing the above symptoms, you should speak to a medical professional about diagnosing iron deficiency. They may recommend taking iron supplements such as iron tablets or oral iron, or an iron infusion to help get your body back on track.
It is possible to consume too much iron, so it's crucial that you only take iron supplements under medical supervision .
Why do I need an iron supplement?
Iron supplements are an effective way of treating iron deficiency anaemia, and are crucial for a healthy pregnancy.
Many studies have found that starting iron supplements before conception, or as soon as possible, reduces the risk of prematurity and low birth weight, and works with other minerals and micronutrients like zinc, copper, and vitamins E and A to support foetal growth and development .
Kin's Iron Support supplement is designed to relieve fatigue from inadequate iron intake and low iron levels in pregnancy. Iron is an essential mineral for growth, yet 1 in 2 women experience iron deficiency in pregnancy.
Designed to support you during conception, pregnancy, postpartum or just daily, the Iron Support relieves tiredness, supports a baby's development, sustains healthy iron levels and maintains energy production.
When should a pregnant woman start taking iron?
Iron supplements take time to work, and you'll often need to take them for several months and sometimes longer to get the most benefit from them .
Being iron deficient is not something to take lightly, particularly as you try to conceive, and with recent studies indicating 52% of women are impacted by low iron, getting that head start with a good iron supplement will help you on your way to a healthy pregnancy and a healthy life .
Image credit: Getty Images