Why is iron important for women’s health? Did you know frequent infections, tiredness, lack of energy, a foggy head and poor stamina may mean you have low iron levels? The importance of iron in the health of our immune system, cardiovascular system and cognitive function is undeniable.
If you have an iron deficiency or insufficiency it will affect your capacity to have an adequate immune response and reduce your resistance to infections. Adequate iron levels for pregnant women are especially important, as a deficiency can increase the risk of preterm delivery and low birth weight.
When you have sufficient iron and co-factor nutrients you’ll experience higher energy levels, sharper concentration, greater attention, enhanced focus and a stronger immune system.
Women and Iron Status
Iron is important for women’s health but unfortunately iron deficiency and insufficiency is fairly common among women. Why? About 80% of iron in the body is in the blood, and most women lose blood with their menstrual cycle each month. Typically women lose less than 80ml of blood and between 3 to 24 mg of iron during each menstrual cycle. However, a heavy blood flow can cause excessive blood loss (menorrhagia), depleting your body’s iron reserves. How can you measure your blood loss? A menstrual cup is an easy way to measure the flow of your period. Pregnant and breast-feeding women also have increased requirements for iron. It’s important to remember that while your body can store iron, it can’t produce it. It must come from your food.
Why iron is important for women’s health: Why do women (especially) need iron?
Why is iron so important for women’s health? Having low iron can dramatically affect your energy levels. Iron is the building block required to produce haemogloblin. Haemoglobin is the protein inside red blood cells, which carry fresh oxygen throughout your body. Red blood cells also remove carbon dioxide from your body, transporting it to the lungs for you to exhale. If your iron levels are low, your body isn’t able to effectively carry oxygen around your body.
If you do not have enough healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen to your body’s cells you may develop anaemia. Some common signs and symptoms of anaemia include:
- Pale skin
- Frequent infections
- Tiredness, lack of energy, poor stamina
- Shortness of breath
- Cold hands and feet/sensitivity to the cold
- Poor memory
- Dizziness and light-headedness
While anaemia is a common condition it can be a sign of a more serious illness. If you suspect that you are anaemic, please see your healthcare professional, especially as the above signs and symptoms of anaemia can also be signs of other health conditions.
Why are women’s iron levels (especially) low?
The causes of iron deficiency and insufficiency in women can be due to a number of factors. If more than one of the factors below apply to you, your risk of having an iron deficiency is further increased.
- You’re pregnant, breast-feeding or have a heavy period. Extra iron requirements are essential for your health.
- Not consuming adequate iron from your diet. This could be due to a diet high in packaged and processed foods. By following a diet that is SLOW – Seasonal, local, organic and whole, you are more likely to have a rich and varied diet and sufficient iron consumption.
- If you are a woman with a vegetarian or vegan diet you need to be mindful of including enough iron in your diet. This is because animal products are the highest-containing and most readily absorbed source of dietary iron (haeme iron). Even with a well balanced plant-based diet you may need to supplement in order to provide sufficient intake.
- You’re an athlete. Iron is lost in sweat and urine and it follows that increased exercise leads to an increase in sweat and urine output.
- You have a compromised gut. Low stomach acid and gastrointestinal disorders can affect your small intestine’s ability to properly break down and absorb the nutrients in the food you eat, including iron.
- The absorption of iron depends on the support of other vitamins, including vitamins A, C, folate, riboflavin, B6 and B12. If your diet is deficient in these vitamins, it can have a knock-on effect with your iron levels.
- Bleeding due to an unknown cause (please see your healthcare practitioner if you have any reasons to suspect this).
Why iron is essential: How Do Women Get Enough Iron? Absorption and Forms of Iron
There are two types of iron found in food – ‘haem iron’ and ‘non-haem iron’. Haem-iron, primarily found in meat, is the most absorbable form, absorbed at a rate of about 23%. Non-haem iron is less absorbable (2-20%), found in meats and plant foods. By eating Vitamin C rich foods in the same meal you can improve the absorption of iron by up to 50%. Cooking also improves the bio-availability of iron.
Other foods can prevent you from absorbing iron. Calcium, zinc, phytates and tannins (think tea and some herbal infusions) can inhibit the absorption of both haem and non-haem iron. Therefore it is wise to drink tea and coffee between meals.
Iron Rich Foods essential for women’s health:
Haem sources of iron
- Liver (lamb) 8.2mg/100g
- Liver (cow) 6.28mg/100g
- Green lip mussels4.6mg 1/2 cup
- Venison 4.47mg/100g
- Beef 2.44mg/100g
- Lamb 1.9mg/100g
Non-haem sources of iron
- Spirulina 28.5mg/100g
- Quinoa 9.25mg/100g
- Amaranth 7.59mg/100g
- Cashews 6.7mg/100g
- Parsley 6.2mg/100g
- Molasses 4.7mg/100g
- Almonds 4.3mg/100g
- Lentils (boiled) 3.33mg/100g
- Jerusalem artichokes 3.4mg/100g
- Swiss chard 2.26mg/100g
- Beetroot 0.8mg/100g
New Zealand Recommended Dietary Intake for women:
- 19 – 50 years: 18mg/day
- Pregnant: 27mg/day
- Breast-feeding: 10mg/day
- 50+ years (post-menopausal): 8mg/day
Do women need to take an iron supplement? Iron Supplementation And Testing
Always seek advice from your health practitioner before supplementing and get your iron levels checked with a blood test from your general practitioner. This will include a complete blood count, which includes your haemoglobin and red blood cell levels; and iron studies, which include your iron storage (ferritin), iron, transferrin and saturation levels.
Remember because the synthesis of ferritin (your iron storage) is stimulated by infection, if you have a blood test while you have an infection an iron deficiency may be obscured, or your ferritin results may indicate a larger iron store than truly exists.
The form of iron you take is important. Remember, not all iron supplements are created equally. As a women’s health naturopath I provide practitioner only products and prescribe the most absorbable forms of nutrients to my clients. If you have signs and symptoms of anaemia or would like get to the root cause of your symptoms I offer free 15 minute discover calls. For more information on the impact of iron supplements please read: “I’m taking an iron supplement, so why do I still feel exhausted?”