Now that you’ve yawned involuntarily 😉
Let’s talk IRON Deficiency! Exciting, I know.
First let me say that I am not offering medical advice here, just giving a heads up about something that I just learned that I think more people (especially women) need to know about.
It is absolutely possible to have an iron deficiency that is causing symptoms with a perfectly normal hemoglobin level. (This was news to me!)
Hemoglobin is a protein in our red blood cells that contains iron and carries oxygen around in our blood stream. This is fairly common knowledge. Our body will prioritize providing iron for our red blood cells because our brain needs oxygen – survival first!
Iron is also incorporated into our muscles as myoglobin, delivering oxygen to muscle tissue. Iron is necessary for our brain, muscles, nerves, metabolism, and immune system to function normally.
We normally get iron from our food and require between 8mg (men, children, and postmenopausal women) and 18mg (pre-menopausal women), requirements increase for growing teens and women during pregnancy or while breastfeeding; the daily requirements are nearly doubled if you’re following a vegetarian or vegan diet. There are different types of iron available in food: the more readily absorbed heme iron is found in animal products (liver, red meat, poultry, shellfish) the less easily absorbed non-heme iron is found in plant foods (cooked spinach, legumes, pumpkin seeds, tofu, enriched grain products). Adding a vitamin C rich food such as peppers, citrus fruits, or tomatoes to a meal will increase iron absorption, which is especially important with plant sources of iron.
So, if iron is readily available in a wide variety of foods, why would anyone be deficient? Basically two reasons: low intake of iron-rich foods or increased demand which is usually growth (children, teens, pregnant women), or blood loss (heavy menstruation, bleeding ulcers, surgery, injuries). Women and children are by far the most likely to be deficient, affecting around 10% of teen and pre-menopausal women and 3.5-10% of children.
Since iron is essential for oxygen delivery in the blood and muscles, symptoms of deficiency often relate to a lack of oxygen or energy: shortness of breath, fatigue, dizziness, weakness, muscle cramping, restless legs at night, and tight jaw and neck muscles are just some. Other symptoms include: insomnia, anxiety or irritability, lack of concentration, brain fog, swollen tongue, and difficulty chewing or swallowing.
“But I’m not anemic, so my iron is fine, right?”
Maybe, maybe not.
Iron deficiency anemia (low hemoglobin in your blood) only shows up on lab tests when your iron stores are depleted, so you can have a normal hemoglobin with very low iron stores. If you are experiencing the symptoms of iron deficiency listed above, ask your physician to check your ferritin levels – that’s the best gauge of your iron stores.
Speaking of iron stores, up until recently, I thought iron stores were like a pantry (hopefully) full of iron, just hanging out until the body needed more hemoglobin for it’s red blood cells.
Iron is used in a myriad of processes throughout the body, not just as hemoglobin in the blood. So when you’re talking about “iron stores” you’re talking about iron that’s functioning to provide muscles with oxygen and energy, in enzyme production, facilitating metabolism, keeping your skin and hair healthy, and helping you sleep at night.
Note: I’m not giving medical advice, just information 🙂
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of iron deficiency listed, or if you feel you’re at risk for low iron due to decreased intake or increased demand, please get your ferritin tested! Don’t start supplementing until you know there’s a deficiency as too much iron can be toxic.