Updated: Nov 28, 2022
Have you been told your iron levels are normal?
It might be worth checking to see if they are optimal for YOU.
I repeatedly see women who have iron levels that aren’t optimal. By that I mean that they have been told they are “normal” or “ within range” but they might not be at the levels that are optimal for them. It’s also quite common for me to hear that a woman is struggling with Iron Deficiency (Iron Deficiency Anaemia), when iron levels are below the recommended reference range.
Let’s dive into the importance of iron, the reason why it’s commonly seen among women, what the symptoms are if your levels are too low, and of course, what you can do about it!
Firstly, Iron is needed for the following:
Iron is a component of haemoglobin - a protein found in red blood cells that carries oxygen to all parts of the body from the lungs. If you don’t have enough iron, there won’t be enough red blood cells available to transport oxygen efficiently.
Iron is also a component of myoglobin - a protein found in your muscles that carries and stores oxygen.
Iron is also needed for growth and development in children
Certain cells and hormones also require iron in order to function properly
Interestingly, low iron levels can influence how heavy your periods are, and impact negatively on thyroid function (iron is needed to convert inactive T4 thyroid hormone into the more active T3 thyroid hormone)- a condition that also causes fatigue, hair loss and brittle nails.
The reasons why iron insufficiency or deficiency occur can be due to a number of reasons:
Menstruation: women are more prone to low iron levels or iron deficiency, especially if they experience heavy periods that last longer than 7 days.
Pregnant women: During pregnancy, women are producing more red blood cells to support the foetal development and have an increased need for iron during this time.
Vegans and Vegetarians: Heme iron (obtained from animal products) is easier to absorb than non-heme iron, obtained from a plant-based diet. If the individual is not eating enough non-heme iron or not maximising the absorption, there is a greater risk of iron deficiency.
Elderly: this can be linked to problems absorpting key nutrients as we age, and risks associated with less than optimal nutrition teeth might become less efficient, and appetites might decrease).
Children: as iron is needed for growth and development, there is an increased need, and therefore more susceptible to deficiency or insufficiency if they are not consuming enough
Chronic digestive problems such as undiagnosed celiac disease, ulcers, Crohn’s disease, which can cause bleeding in the stomach and intestines. If you notice blood in your stools, it’s important that you always go to your doctor to get yourself checked.
Also, it’s worth pointing out that low stomach acid can reduce the absorption of iron and other important vitamins and minerals.
The symptoms of iron deficiency include:
Tiredness and fatigue
Shortness of breath
Brittle Nails & spoon-shaped nails
Restless leg syndrome
“Pica”, which describes a craving for non-food items such as dirt, clay and ice!
It’s worth pointing out that you can still experience some of these symptoms even if your iron levels are “normal” or “within range”.
How to check whether your iron levels are suboptimal/deficient:
In a blood test, iron is measured by looking at a number of markers:
Serum Iron - this is not a reliable marker to measure possible iron sufficiency as it can be influenced by how much iron you’ve eaten the days before the blood test.
Ferritin - the storage protein of iron which stores iron in your cells and tissues. Since this stores surplus iron, measuring the ferritin levels gives a good idea of your iron levels and if they are adequate.
TIBC (Total iron-binding capacity ) is a measure of your body’s ability to efficiently transport iron through the blood.
UIBC (Unsaturated iron binding capacity) shows that portion of unoccupied iron binding sites on transferrin
Transferrin saturation - a protein in the blood that binds to iron and transports it around the body. This marker measures how much of the protein is literally ‘saturated' by iron.
How to increase suboptimal iron levels:
When it comes to raising iron levels naturally, you can look at optimising your nutrition:
Animal-based source of iron (heme iron) include: liver and most meats are rich in iron, especially lean steak and venison and poultry.
Plant-based sources of iron (non-heme iron) include: legumes, lentils, nuts and seeds. Cocoa, curry powder and raw parsley also contain moderate amounts of iron
Leafy green veg like watercress, sprouted foods such as alfalfa, broccoli, spinach, kale, cabbage and organic tomatoes are also rich in iron
Eat vitamin C with non-heme iron to optimise absorption: peppers, tomatoes, citrus fruits
You could take vitamin C (1000mg/1g) daily with food, as well as B9 (folate/folic acid) and B12 help to increase absorption of iron.
If you are vegetarian or vegan, as you will be consuming sources of non-heme iron which isn’t as easily absorbed - it’s worth checking your iron levels regularly, to ensure that you are getting sufficient from your diet.
Sometimes supplementation might be necessary, especially if you’re extremely deficient. The iron tablets that are prescribed by the doctor often come with a variety of unpleasant side effects, so if that’s something that you’re struggling with, consider trying a different form of iron, as some other types of iron are kinder on the digestive system.
In summary, Iron insufficiency or deficiency is extremely common, particularly among women who are in the menstruation phase of life. It can cause a variety of different unpleasant symptoms, and have far reaching effects on the body. If you’re feeling tired and lacklustre, it’s always worth getting your iron levels checked
Optimal iron levels can boost your energy levels, make menstruation more manageable, and help support overall wellbeing!
Word of warning: Don’t supplement iron unless you have had your iron levels checked, this is because excessive intake of iron via supplements can be toxic for the body.
If you need more guidance about coping with low iron levels or just low energy levels in general, then reach out to me and book your free 30-minute Health & Energy Review:
Registered Nutritional Therapist
Amy Cottrell Nutrition does not claim to prevent, treat or cure any physical, mental or emotional conditions. These blog articles are written for educational & informational purposes only and are not a subsitute for medical advice.
Do not stop or start taking medication or supplements without first talking to your primary health care provider.