Iron Up, Ladies

If you are a woman who feel down in the dumps or downright depressed much of the time, or if your energy level has taken a nosedive, rather than reach for another cup of coffee to get yourself through the day, try a little iron therapy.

Iron deficiency is the number one most prevalent nutrient deficiency, with estimates as high as 50% of women of childbearing age to 80% of active women being iron deficient. It’s almost a given if you are between the ages of 13 to 50, have been pregnant in the past two years, consume less than 2,000 calories daily, menstruate heavily or exercise frequently and vigorously that your iron levels are low. In contrast, seldom do men or post-menopausal women need to worry about iron; they should consider supplement only if blood test show they are deficient, and even then only with physician monitoring.

Give Me Oxygen, or Give Me Death!

What’s the big deal with iron? This little trace mineral is the key oxygen carrier in the blood. Without enough iron, the tissues literally suffocate for oxygen and the signs of deficiency reflect this: you are fatigued, feel sluggish, can’t concentrate and are likely to come down with every cold and flu bug that passes by. You also are more prone to depression, postpartum depression, stress, anxiety, irritability, lethargy and memory loss. If you are a student, you have trouble retaining information, doing well on tests or even staying awake during class. If you exercise, you might notice that you can’t recover as quickly from an exercise session, your muscle strength is declining and you tire easily.

Request the Right Test

Your doctor typically only checks for anemia, drawing blood for hemoglobin and hematocrit tests. These tests pick up full-blow anemia, while more subtle iron deficiency goes unnoticed. That’s why if you suspect iron deficiency, you should request a more sensitive test called the “serum ferritin” test. And don’t be satisfied with a diagnosis of “you’re find”. Ask for the value. A value of less than 20 mcg / l means you are iron deficient.

It happened to me when I was pregnant with my first child. I was an avid runner, averaging 40 or more miles a week, but now I could hardly make it up the short flight of stairs to my office. When I complained to my doctor, he shrugged it off. “of course you are tire, you’re pregnant. You bloodwork looks fine, just take it a little easier”. I knew how I felt wasn’t normal, so I ordered my own serum ferritin test. Instead of the optimal value of 20 or higher, my value was a measly 4 micrograms. When I returned to my doctor’s office and showed him the results, his attitude changed. “Well, I’ll be. You are iron deficient” He put me on iron supplements and within two weeks I was bounding up the stairs to my office again.

That experience convinced me how subtle, yet devastating, low iron can be. I knew how to eat right, yet even I was deficient. How many more women who weren’t trained to be as nutrition savvy as me were slugging it through the day, getting by with coffee and colas to stay awake, when really what they needed was a good kick in their iron intake?

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