Although relatively uncommon, iron deficiency can be a health concern for women of reproductive age, especially if they are athletes or vegetarians. This article describes iron deficiency, lists its symptoms, and discusses the best ways to remedy the problem.
Know Your Nutrition
For staying in optimal health throughout the life cycle, it’s important to understand how various nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, act on the body to maintain and improve its functionality. Additionally, it’s important to understand how these vitamins and minerals interact with one another and with your individual diet and lifestyle. In the quest to understand what our bodies need to feel their best, iron is often overlooked. Iron is an important nutrient that is crucial to the proper functioning of the entire body. Although most of the population does not need to worry about iron deficiency, some demographics are at a higher risk, and learning about iron can help you stay in good working order if you fall into one of those risk categories.
What Does Iron Do?
Iron’s primary job in the human body is to go toward the production of hemoglobin, or red blood cells. Hemoglobin is responsible for transporting oxygen from the lungs to every other part of the body. This is why iron deficiency can have such adverse affects on overall health; a lack of iron means a lack of hemoglobin, which means not enough oxygen to the entire system.
Your anatomy includes a complex iron regulation system to make sure that, if at all possible, iron deficiency doesn’t occur. The body needs a certain amount of iron every day, which it gets from dietary sources. After its gotten enough iron, any remaining iron in the diet is stored for later use. That way, if you go through periods of lowered iron intake, the body can draw from its iron reserves to maintain proper functionality. For some people, however, more iron is needed to maintain this appropriate level.
Some estimates suggest that iron deficiency affects as much as 30% of the population worldwide. The population that is by far at the greatest risk for iron deficiency is women of reproductive age. During menstruation, women lose a significant amount of iron, especially if they have heavy flows. Thus, women need more iron than men and post-menopausal women. According to the FDA, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of iron for adult women is 18mg, compared to 8-10mg for adult men.
However, when determining whether there is enough iron in your diet, it is important to keep in mind that FDA guidelines are intended to maintain a very basic level of health in average populations, and the optimal amount of iron for you may vary significantly from this number. Another factor to consider is the bio-availability of iron, or how easy it is for your body to absorb it from food. It has often been suggested, for example, that iron in meat is easier to absorb than iron in vegetable sources.
Symptoms of Iron Deficiency
If you are a woman of reproductive age, there are some signs that could indicate that you have an iron deficiency. First, if you are an athlete, especially a distance runner, if you have a heavy menstrual flow, or if you are a vegetarian, you may be at an even higher risk for iron deficiency. If this applies to you, some of the following symptoms could indicate iron deficiency: pale skin, fatigue or muscle weakness, pain or twitching in the legs when you walk, excessive sweating, or difficulty regulating body temperature.
As with anything, these symptoms could also indicate other conditions, so make sure to consult your doctor to determine for certain that you have an iron deficiency. In cases of serious iron deficiency, the condition can lead to anemia, which can affect organ functionality and cause heart palpitations and elevated heart rate. Although this can cause serious problems, careful dietary changes can usually correct iron deficiency and related anemia.
Treating Iron Deficiency
The best way to prevent or treat an iron deficiency is by including more iron in your diet. Meat, especially red meat, is high in iron, but vegetarians and vegans can easily include iron in their diet through other sources. Many cereals and breads are fortified with iron, and this can be one of the best dietary sources. Additionally, beans, especially red kidney beans and lentils, are high in iron. Other good vegetarian sources of iron include kale, broccoli, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), and tofu. In some cases, dietary changes may not be enough to correct iron deficiencies.
If this is due to a greater need for iron, various supplements are available. Supplements of around 100mg are common, but, since iron can be toxic at high levels, take care to choose the lowest dose that works for you. Additionally, vitamin A affects the body’s ability to draw from existing iron stores, so low levels of vitamin A could also result in continued iron deficiency. This is uncommon in countries, like the United States, where vitamin A is readily available in many foods, but could be a consideration in rare cases.