In general, women tend to be smaller than men. This leads to them having different nutritional needs, both in fats, carbohydrates, proteins and even minerals and vitamins. The usual thing is that they need less quantity than the male gender, but when it comes to iron… There they do need more! We analyze what iron deficiency anemia is.
Specifically, menstruating women need 18 mg of iron per day, and most of us don’t pay attention to this. We are only alarmed when we are very tired or discover that we have a deficiency from a blood test. Allowing that deficit to get too high will cause the red blood cells to be low in hemoglobin, and in extreme cases a blood transfusion is required. If hemoglobin levels are less than 12 g/dL, we are considered anemic .
In addition to feeling tired, symptoms of low iron include fatigue and lack of energy, shortness of breath, dizziness, leg cramps, insomnia, and a rapid heart rate, especially when exercising.
Statistics say that almost 50% of women, and 3 out of 4 adolescents, do not get enough iron in their food. But it’s actually quite difficult to get the amount you need from food alone. Spinach, for example, is a good source of iron and has 2.71 mg per 100 grams. Can you imagine having to eat 700 grams of spinach every day? You’d end up being Popeye’s sister. Something similar happens with meat. In 100 grams we find 2.4 mg of iron, so you would have to eat almost a kilo of beef.
Additionally, there are times in women’s lives where iron becomes even more important than others, such as during menstruation and pregnancy . There are women who lose up to 1 mg of iron each day that they are menstruating, which could mean a loss of between 5 and 7 mg of iron per month. Even when you are pregnant, iron is very necessary for the correct growth of the baby. You should know that the iron that women provide during pregnancy can last up to 6 months after giving birth. In fact, the dose needs to be increased to about 27 mg, instead of 18.
Having low levels of iron in the blood is the main cause of iron deficiency anemia. This is a condition that can cause symptoms such as weakness, exhaustion, shortness of breath, pale skin, a fast heartbeat, and dry, brittle nails.
Women are more prone to lower iron levels because they lose blood during menstruation and during pregnancy. This means that they have higher iron requirements relative to their size.
The symptoms of iron deficiency anemia can be mild at first and we may not even notice them. Most people don’t realize they have mild anemia until they have a routine blood test.
Symptoms of moderate to severe iron deficiency anemia may include:
- overall fatigue
- Pale skin
- Difficulty breathing
- Strange cravings for things with no nutritional value
- Tingling or tingling sensation in the legs
- Swelling or pain in the tongue
- cold hands and feet
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- brittle nails
Causes of anemia
Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia. There are many reasons why a person may be deficient in this mineral.
Inadequate iron intake
Eating too little iron over a long period of time can cause a shortage in the body. Foods like meat, eggs, and some green leafy vegetables are high in iron.
Because iron is essential during times of rapid growth and development, pregnant women and young children may need even more iron-rich foods in their diets.
Pregnancy or menstruation
Heavy menstrual bleeding is a common cause of iron deficiency anemia in women of childbearing age. So is pregnancy, because the body needs more iron during this time to create enough oxygen for the baby.
Certain medical conditions can cause internal bleeding, which can lead to iron deficiency anemia. Examples include a stomach ulcer, polyps in the colon or intestines, or colon cancer.
Regular use of certain pain relievers, such as aspirin, can also cause stomach bleeding.
Inability to absorb iron
Certain disorders or surgeries that affect the intestines can also interfere with the way the body absorbs iron. Even if we get enough iron in the diet, celiac disease or intestinal surgery like gastric bypass can limit the amount of iron your body can absorb.
If we have endometriosis, we may have a lot of blood loss during menstrual periods. We may not even know we have endometriosis because it occurs hidden in the abdominal or pelvic area outside of the womb.
Some conditions, such as celiac disease, that can make it hard to absorb enough iron are passed from parent to child. There are also genetic conditions or mutations that can aggravate the problem. One of these is the TMRPSS6 mutation. This mutation causes your body to make too much hepcidin. Hepcidin is a hormone that can prevent the intestines from absorbing iron.
Other genetic conditions can contribute to anemia by causing abnormal bleeding. Examples include von Willebrand disease and hemophilia.
Why is it common in women?
Pregnancy, significant menstrual bleeding, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids are reasons women are more likely to experience iron deficiency anemia.
Heavy menstrual bleeding occurs when a woman bleeds more or for a longer time than normal during her period. Typical menstrual bleeding lasts 4 to 5 days and the amount of blood lost varies from 2 to 3 tablespoons. Women with excessive menstrual bleeding usually bleed for more than 7 days and lose twice as much blood as normal.
A pelvic ultrasound can help the doctor look for the source of excess bleeding during a woman’s period, such as fibroids . Like iron deficiency anemia, uterine fibroids do not usually cause symptoms. They occur when muscle tumors grow in the uterus. Although not usually cancerous, fibroids can cause heavy menstrual bleeding that can lead to iron deficiency anemia.
How to improve absorption?
The absorption of vegetarian sources of iron is easily affected by the foods they are eaten with, so vegetarians and vegans need to take extra care to ensure their iron levels are replenished.
Vitamin C , when consumed along with plant sources of iron, helps with absorption, so it’s a good idea to add a source of vitamin C to every meal that contains iron. We can take a sip of orange juice after each meal to help absorption, include vegetables rich in vitamin C such as tomato or peppers, or enjoy delicious fruits such as mango, pineapple or berries for dessert.
If we usually drink a cup of tea or coffee with meals, we may want to reconsider this beverage choice. This is because tea and coffee contain compounds called polyphenols that can inhibit iron absorption, so try to avoid drinking them within 30 minutes of meals. Instead, a glass of vitamin C-rich orange juice or a glass of water is a great option to aid iron absorption and cut out the tea and coffee breaks between meals.
Treatment of iron deficiency anemia will depend on the severity of the problem and the initial cause. Most forms of this condition involve a lack of iron in the diet or problems absorbing the iron we do take in.
Iron tablets can help restore levels in the body. If possible, we should take the pills on an empty stomach, which helps the body absorb them better. If they cause us stomach upset, we can take them with meals. We may need to take the supplements for several months. They can sometimes cause constipation or black stools.
There are reasons beyond reaching 18 mg daily. In fact, getting enough of this mineral can make menstruation days easier because it helps produce melatonin, and melatonin is helpful in reducing cramping, bloating, and even mood swings.
In addition, we could also consider eating whole foods to get the right amount. It is true that some supplements have side effects such as digestion or intestinal problems.
Diets that include the following foods may help treat or prevent iron deficiency: red meat, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruits, nuts, and iron-fortified cereals.
Additionally, vitamin C can help the body absorb iron. If we are taking iron tablets, a doctor might suggest taking the tablets along with a source of vitamin C, such as a glass of orange juice or citrus fruit. We may also need to consider things we eat or drink that can lower iron levels or decrease iron absorption, such as black tea.