In late February this year I knew something wasn’t quite right with my body. I was tired all the time (even after a good night’s sleep), I was struggling to concentrate, I was having dizzy spells and my hair kept falling out. I spoke to my Naturopath about it and she suggested I go and get a blood test to check my iron levels. Now before I get into that… a back story.
As discussed in my previous women’s health article, I got my period when I was 14. It was so heavy for the first few years. I experimented with sleeping with a pillow between my legs just to let me sleep without too much bleeding (apologies for the TMI). It improved as I got into my late teens. I lost my period when I was 21 for about 8 months and when it finally returned it was sporadic. It would come one month and then not for another three. It finally started to get semi-regular at the end of 2017 when I was about to turn 23. At the start of 2018 (on Australia Day if I am going to be specific) I started the Pill. I went on it for contraceptive purposes but also to try and get a more regular cycle.
Well the beginning of that journey was interesting… I bled every day for a month. Not ideal. After that experience it definitely became more regular. When I first started the Pill and up until February 2019 my period would come a couple of days early and that didn’t really bother me. I would typically bleed for seven or eight days.
It came as no surprise that when I got my blood test results at the beginning of March this year that my iron levels were really low. A woman of my age should have Iron levels between 30-200 ng/mL. Mine was right on 30 ng/mL, hence my symptoms.
Before I get carried away with my story and this post, there are some preliminary questions that need answering.
What is iron?
Iron is a mineral found in our body that is involved in the production of red blood cells. In fact, 70 per cent of the iron in our body can be found in our red blood cells (haemoglobin) and muscle cells (myoglobin). Our red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen around our body.
Why do we need iron?
Iron has many functions including the production of haemoglobin, oxygen transport, oxygen storage, energy production and DNA synthesis.
What factors increase our bodies demand of iron?
There are a number of factors that will increase the demand for iron such as a period of growth, having a vegetarian diet, consuming coffee and tea, heavy bleeding and other nutritional deficiencies.
What is the recommended daily intake of iron?
This varies depending on your age and gender. For adult men the recommendation is 8mg a day. For adult women aged between 19 and 50 the recommendation is 18mg a day. For adult women over the age of 51 the recommendation is 8mg a day. During pregnancy the recommendation is 27mg a day and when breastfeeding the recommendation is 9mg a day.
What happens if I don’t get enough iron?
Iron deficiency is common among women in their reproductive years, pregnant women, young children and teenagers. A person will have a deficiency if their iron stores are depleted. General symptoms of deficiency include fatigue, weakness, pallor (being pale), tiredness and having impaired cognitive function. This can develop into anaemia if it is left for too long.
I will say at this point, if you think you have iron deficiency it is best to see a GP or your healthcare professional. They will be able to refer you for appropriate testing and give you sound advice tailored to you.
Before we get into diet back to my story…
Since receiving my blood test results at the start of March something strange has been going on. My period has been really jumping the gun and coming way before its time. Since April I have had two week long periods. Not normal. I have two weeks on and two weeks off. I know I am definitely making pad companies a lot of money. As you can imagine (me being a hypochondriac and all) I decided to visit the GP again last week. You guessed it… more blood tests.
This time he wasn’t just testing my iron levels. He was also testing my female hormones (Oestrogen, Progesterone, Follicle Stimulating Hormone and Luteinizing Hormone). Now I am not going to sit here and complain that my results were really really bad, but there are definitely a few issues that need to be addressed.
The good news is that my iron levels have almost doubled since March! This is really great news and even though it is still at the lower end and needs to increase at least it is getting better. The issue came with my female hormones. I am not going to get into all the numbers in this post. All I will say here is that my levels of female hormones in my body are well under the requirement. Considering one day I want to have my own children, this was not great news.
My GP was really great about it; he doesn’t want to start worrying about getting an ultrasound just yet. For the next month I have to get my iron levels up more. By doing this, he hopes that my hormones will start to balance out. This led me back to my nutritional textbooks to see how I can increase my iron intake and the way my body absorbs it… enter the food!
Now that you know what’s going on with me, what iron is and why we need it we can begin to look at how we can get it into our diets. We should really be able to get our daily dose of iron from our diet without the need to supplement. I have been prescribed an iron supplement by both my GP and Naturopath to get my iron levels back up because dietary measures alone aren’t going to be enough. I don’t want to be taking supplements forever so I am determined to work out how I can get iron back into my body through my diet.
Getting Iron from our Diet
There are two dietary sources of iron, ‘haeme’ and ‘nonhaeme.’ Haeme iron is present in foods that are from the flesh of animals. Examples of foods highest in haeme iron are chicken liver, beef, kangaroo, lamb, salmon, pork, chicken and tinned tuna. Haeme iron has an absorption rate of about 25 per cent.
Nonhaeme iron is found in plant and animal derived foods. Examples of nonhaeme iron include lentils, beans, leafy vegetables, tofu, fortified bread, broccoli, cooked brown rice, rolled oats, almonds, chickpeas and dried apricot (oh and dark chocolate, how could I forget?!). Unfortunately, nonhaeme iron is not as readily absorbed as haeme iron (17 per cent). The good news is that there are a number of things we can do to ensure we are absorbing all the iron that we can. One thing we can all do is have some foods rich in vitamin C along with the foods rich in iron. Foods rich in vitamin C include oranges, blackcurrants, raw red capsicum, strawberries, kiwi and boiled broccoli.
We should all be aware that there are a number of factors that actually prevent us from absorbing the iron in our diets. Avoid having coffee, tea and calcium directly after consuming iron rich foods because they actually reduce absorption. In fact, coffee can inhibit the absorption of iron by 40 per cent. Try cooking plant foods that are rich in iron to improve the amount of available iron in them and check with your GP to see if any of your medications are inhibiting iron absorption.
I have created a list of the foods I am going to be incorporating into my diet to increase the level of iron in my body:
Dark leafy green vegetables – In my salads and soups.
Chickpeas – Cooked until crispy or in the form of hummus.
Almonds, walnuts and pistachios – Served with strawberries or oranges to aid absorption.
Whole grains such as spelt and quinoa – In my salads alongside raw red capsicum to aid absorption.
Steak, chicken, livers (I actually like it), salmon and tuna – Served with whole grains and a nutty pesto on top.
I have to say that when it comes to my health there are so many things that I care about. I care not only about my physical health and wellbeing, but also my mental and emotional health. This piece has solely focussed on my physical health and what I am planning to do to get my health back on track. I want to take a moment now to acknowledge a more holistic understanding.
One of my favourite books is ‘You Can Heal Your Life’ by Louise Hay. I have mentioned her a few times on my blog because she is someone I am very inspired by and admire. At the end of her book she has a list of common diseases we often face in the Western world such as anaemia, female problems (periods and hormone imbalances), diabetes, heart disease and eczema. Instead of providing the likely physiological cause she looks to the emotional cause. ‘Blood’ represents the presence of joy in the body and its ability to run free. If a person is continually bleeding, then the joy is running out. There is anger present. Anaemia (iron depletion) represents a lack of joy. A fear of life and not feeling good enough. Upon reflection, when all of these issues with my health started to occur this year I was not joyful at all. I was constantly unhappy, confused and easily angered. I was uncertain about where I was in my life and didn’t think I was worthy of any success or recognition. This has really got me thinking. In the last couple of weeks, I have felt a kind of joy that I haven’t experienced in a while. It is the kind that when I wake up in the morning I am excited. I want to try new things. Do more for others and radiate positive energy. The mantra she suggests for those with anaemia is as follows:
“It is safe for me to experience joy in every area of my life. I love life.” – Louise Hay.
Your health is not something that can miraculously improve over night. I am of the belief that if it has taken a while for your body to reach a certain point that it will take equal or more time to get back to balance. I am being patient with my body and grateful for what it allows me to do. I hope that by making changes in my diet and in my thinking that things will naturally start to improve.
I am going to visit my doctor again at the start of September. This gives me a month to start implementing change. Again, I would like to make clear that I am not a Doctor, I am a very conscientious nutrition student who really wants to apply their knowledge to their own health. If you are worried about something going on with you, don’t self-diagnose. Get as many opinions as you can from a number of professionals such as your GP or a registered nutritionist. If you would like any further information on this topic, please let me know and I can direct you to reputable sources.
Thank you so much for coming along with me on this journey. I hope that together we can learn more about our bodies in an open and supportive community.
Endeavour College of Natural Health. (2018). NMDF121: Foundations of Human Nutrition, session 21.
Nutrition Australia. 2014. Iron. Retrieved from http://www.nutritionaustralia.org/national/resource/iron.