Although related, iron deficiency and anemia are not the same things. The term “anemia” gets thrown around loosely by many, but it is important to understand the difference. Anemia is a condition diagnosed when the level of hemoglobin or red blood cells becomes low. Hemoglobin is the protein responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body. There are many causes of anemia - iron deficiency being one of them. Therefore, iron is important for many functions in the body. Moreover, it is essential for the production of hemoglobin. As a result, If we don't have enough iron our body can’t make enough hemoglobin. Therefore, oxygen transportation is compromised. This is when iron deficiency becomes iron deficiency anemia (IDA). In short, iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia worldwide.
Iron deficiency on its own and IDA are huge problems across the globe, especially in women. Monthly menstrual bleeds, heavy periods, spotting, and pregnancy put women at a much higher risk of low iron levels compared to men. Additionally, women who consume a plant-based diet and women who are very active; are at greater risk of having low iron levels.
Symptoms of IDA:
The signs and symptoms of IDA can range from mild to severe. Thus, some women with mild to moderate iron deficiency may not have any signs or symptoms at all. In general, as iron levels drop and anemia worsens, symptoms become more apparent. Furthermore, here are common signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia:
- Feeling tired or weak - which is the most common symptom
- Shortness of breath
- Irregular heartbeat
- Brittle or spoon-shaped nails
- Cracks at the sides of the mouth
- Pale skin
- Swelling or soreness of the tongue
- Chest pain
- Coldness in the hands and feet
- Difficulty concentrating
- Unusual cravings for non-food items like ice or dirt (this is called pica)
- Restless leg syndrome
- Catching colds easily
- Thinning hair
- Thyroid problems
- Irregular menstruation
Causes of Iron Deficiency
As previously mentioned, iron deficiency is more prevalent in women than men. One study found that almost 60% of reproductive-aged women had iron deficiency (without anemia) compared to about 8% of men. Low levels of iron can occur because of blood loss, low iron intake, and medical conditions that reduce your body’s ability to absorb iron. Also, some of the common causes include:
- Frequent blood donation or blood tests
- Heavy menstrual periods
- Injury or surgery
- Urinary tract bleeding
- Bleeding in your gastrointestinal tract (from an ulcer, colon cancer, or regular use of medicines eg aspirin or NSAIDs)
- Certain rare genetic conditions
Those who may be at a higher risk include:
- Vegans and vegetarians
- Those who do not consume enough iron-rich foods and get less than the recommended daily amount of iron
- Female athletes (runners to be exact)
- Those who donate blood often
The recommended daily intake of iron for women of reproductive age is about 20mg daily, and more if you’re pregnant.
How to know if you are iron deficient
Identifying iron deficiency is easily done through a blood test with your family doctor or naturopath. The 2 key diagnostic tests include a Complete Blood Count (which includes hemoglobin and red blood cell levels). Secondly, ferritin is the storage form of iron in the body. This will determine if iron levels are low and if there is the presence of IDA.
How do you treat IDA
Treating low iron levels or IDA is simple with an iron supplement. In addition, there are many different forms of iron supplements available. Some prescriptions and over-the-counter options are readily available at any health food store or pharmacy. The form of iron is very important. However, many forms of iron cause uncomfortable digestive symptoms and constipation.
Other ways to increase iron:
- Consume foods rich in iron like meat, fish, eggs, beans, dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, dried fruit like raisins and apricots, and peas.
- Increase your intake of vitamin C to help your body absorb iron
- Avoid drinking black tea, which reduces iron absorption
It is important to know that increasing your intake of iron through food is likely not enough to correct low iron levels. Remember to do follow-up blood testing about 3-6 months after starting an iron supplement to ensure your blood levels are improving. You may need to try a different form of iron if your body is not responding well to your current supplementation.
Another option is Ferritin+, a new, plant-based iron supplement made with organic peas. Ferritin is a naturally protein-coated form of iron found in legumes that allows for time release and efficient absorption, minimizing digestive upset.
Ferritin+ is a highly bioavailable type of iron supplement, meaning it’s more easily digested by the body. Because this form of iron moves easily through the digestive tract, it doesn’t lead to constipation or the other common side effects of iron supplements. Clinical studies have shown that plant-based ferritin iron can effectively increase and maintain healthy iron levels.
All-in-all finding the right iron supplement takes some experimenting to see what works best for your body. You can try Ferritin+ with 15% off with the code WELLDAILY15 at Flora Health.