Iron deficiency is the most common mineral deficiency in North America, with a predilection for females. Up to a whopping 60% of women of child-bearing age show some degree of iron deficiency. Because of its role in both oxygen transport and energy production, one of the most common symptoms of low iron is fatigue. Even slight iron deficiency anemia leads to reduction in physical work capacity and productivity. Other symptoms of low iron include weakness, pale skin and gums, brittle nails, hair loss, heavy periods, and frequent shortness of breath.
What’s a healthy iron level for women?
There are a couple of tests to measure iron levels. A hemoglobin test measures the iron-containing portion of red blood cells. For women this should be between 120 g/L and 160 g/L. A ferritin test measures the amount of iron stored in the body, and it is also important to check if this is running low. Normal ferritin ranges from 12 to 150 ng/mL for women.
Foods high in iron include calf’s liver (a nutritional powerhouse that’s also rich in vitamin B12, folic acid, and vitamin A), shellfish, red meat, sardines, spinach, and swiss chard. In addition to being a source of iron, green leafy vegetables also deserve special mention for containing iron absorption enhancers, such as vitamin C and chlorophyll. For people following plant-based diets, cooked lentils and beans are good sources of iron, as well as blackstrap molasses, tofu, tempeh, and iron-fortified breakfast cereals and bread. Women should aim to get 10–15 mg of dietary iron per day.
If your breakfast typically consists of a bran muffin and a cup of joe, consider changing that menu, or at the very least taking an iron supplement later in the day. The rumours about coffee and tea are true – those beverages and several foods contain compounds which inhibit iron absorption. Foods high in phytates like Brazil nuts, raw cacao, and wheat bran are especially problematic. Antacids and high doses of calcium supplements can also decrease iron absorption – try to separate these from iron supplements by a few hours.
Even with special attention to diet, low levels can be slow to rebound, especially for women who are losing iron every month during menstruation. An iron supplement can be invaluable for restoring iron and the energy levels that come with it. However, common forms of supplemental iron, such as ferrous gluconate, can be hard on the stomach and cause constipation. Alternatives such as the bisglycinate form of iron is much gentler on digestion. Balanced iron formulas also include vitamin C and copper, both of which help with iron absorption. Folic acid, along with vitamins B12 and B6 also cooperate with iron in the formation of blood cells, so taking these together is wise.
Iron is a pro-oxidant and it is possible to have too much of it in your blood – although this is less common than iron deficiency in women. So, while iron deficiency is common and even a mild lack of iron can slow you down, don’t assume that just because you’re feeling tired you should take an iron supplement. If you suspect you have low iron, have a blood test to check your iron levels before supplementing with iron. Restoring low iron levels can make a world of difference in energy and well-being.
Michael Murray et al. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. Sept 2005; p. 128.