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Why are so many of us iron deficient?

WORDS BY SOHANI GOONETILLAKE

To all my fellow girlies choosing to have a little lie down instead of getting that blood test, please get up – but not too fast.

 

My girlfriends and I bond over lots of shared experiences from work gossip to dating drama but another experience I have noticed that binds us together is that many of us have varying severities of iron deficiency.

Iron deficiency occurs when iron intakes or iron absorption rates are unable to meet the iron demands of the body. In its most severe form, anemia, red blood cells can no longer carry adequate amounts of oxygen around the body, resulting in extreme weakness.


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I have witnessed my friends manage their diagnoses in various ways. From cursing every time they forget to take their daily dose of Ferro grad-C, to needing to get blood transfusions and, unfortunately, many also ignore it altogether.

Doctors routinely underestimate women’s health concerns and gendered stereotypes often mean women endure unnecessary discomfort and side effects. Consequently, women often dismiss their excessive tiredness and laugh off getting a bruise the size of Tasmania when they accidentally bump into something. 

Research suggests that iron deficiency is often overlooked by doctors – and this can have serious implications on women’s health. What makes this even more concerning is that iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency globally, affecting approximately 2 billion people worldwide, and it’s particularly present in women.

Having an iron deficiency is quite literally exhausting to manage but it’s not just a condition that makes women want to curl up with a slab of red meat and nap all day. The symptoms are extensive and the consequences of leaving it untreated need to be taken seriously. 

What are the symptoms?

Fatigue, brain fog, poor concentration, feeling cold, dizziness, hair loss, insomnia, shortness of breath, mood changes and inability to do normal activities or exercise are just a few of the symptoms associated with iron deficiency. 

This long list of symptoms is enough for Google to tell you that you’ve got three different diseases and have a week left to live. Instead of consulting Doctor Google I thought it was best to speak to a health professional about why this condition commonly affects women and how they should go about treating it. 

What causes iron deficiency and why are women more likely to be iron deficient?

Women need higher levels of iron to offset the amount of iron they lose monthly during menstruation. Endocrinologist, Dr Sonia Davison, tells me that iron deficiency is caused by a number of factors:

  • Heavy periods due to pathological causes such as fibroids and adenomyosis
  • Unsatisfactory iron consumption within your diet, particularly when there is a low amount of meat, especially red meat
  • High metabolism and doing a lot of exercise means you are likely to burn through your iron stores more quickly
  • Sometimes it can be due to pathological causes, such as gastritis, coeliac disease, and oesophagitis
  • Occasionally it can indicate a tumour is present, such as gastric cancer or colon cancer, which is another reason why iron deficiency should always be properly investigated

How to get a diagnosis?

To diagnose the severity of your iron deficiency, your doctor will order a blood test to check your complete blood count, hemoglobin levels, blood iron levels, and ferritin levels.

How is it treated?

Dr Davison refers to treatment and restoring iron stores as simply “filling the petrol tank” and explains this can be done in several ways:

  • Consume more iron within your diet. If you are eating a plant-based diet, it is still possible to increase your intake. Lentils, kidney beans, tofu and chickpeas are all high in iron
  • If altering your diet is not an option for you, add a supplement with vitamin C for better absorption
  • Some will need an iron infusion

Additional blood tests may then be ordered to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment and to investigate if there are other underlying causes that are affecting your iron levels.

If left untreated, iron deficiency can cause serious mental and physical health implications as well as effect work productivity. To all my fellow girlies who are choosing to have a little lie down instead of getting that blood test, please get up – but not too fast. Your mental and physical health matters.

For more information on why iron is essential for your health, head here.

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