5 key signs you’re likely low in iron

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It is not uncommon for busy women who are juggling the demands of the home, family and work — as well as pregnancy and breastfeeding at times — to feel extremely tired. There is a difference though between collapsing in bed at 8:30pm with the kids after a 14-hour day, and waking up each day and feeling like you have not slept. When all you can think about is when you will be able to go to bed again, or when climbing stairs leaves you feeling lightheaded, you could be one of the many Australian women who are dealing with iron deficiency.

Iron deficiency is one of the most prevalent nutritional deficiencies around the world, with up to 30 per cent of women presenting with some form of iron deficiency.

Iron has a number of key roles in the body but one of the most important is that it transports oxygen, which is why fatigue is so common when our levels are low. Iron is also involved in immune function, brain function and helps to produce energy from food.

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With so many Australian women living with low iron levels, we run the risk of it being commonly overlooked as a clinical diagnosis, resulting in many busy, overwhelmed women powering on despite feeling far from their best. So, if you can never get enough sleep and are chronically exhausted, here are some signs your iron levels need investigating, ASAP.

You eat red meat occasionally

Red meat, like other animal foods contains haem iron. This is compared to the iron found in plant foods, which is non-haem iron. Haem iron is more easily absorbed in the body compared to non-haem iron.

In order to get adequate iron, a female who includes red meat in the diet will need to consume it at least three to four times each week to give the body access to this well absorbed iron. In reality what can happen is that red meat may only be included in the diet occasionally, or just once or twice each week, which leaves overall iron intake inadequate. While chicken, fish and eggs do contain haem iron, it is in much smaller quantities than found in red meat. For vegetarians, where non-haem iron is the primary source of iron in the diet, the body is likely to have become used to absorbing this form of iron and as such, as long as plenty of legumes, wholegrains, nuts and seeds are enjoyed on a daily basis, iron deficiency is less likely to be an issue.

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No amount of sleep is enough

There is a difference between feeling generally tired at the end of the day and feeling so exhausted you can barely concentrate. If you are sleeping a reasonable amount, yet still feel like you could go back to bed for hours, you need to have a nap in the day and are experiencing a general feeling of fogginess, it might be time for an iron check.

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Your mood is off

With many of the symptoms of iron deficiency common to those who experience mood disturbance and anxiety — including tiredness, fatigue, trouble sleeping and hair loss — it has been shown that a significant number of Australian women are diagnosed and managed for clinical depression when they are actually suffering from iron deficiency. For this reason, if you are not feeling like yourself, when your mood is usually a lot better, or are feeling unusually stressed or anxious, and are finding it difficult to sleep, make sure you have your iron levels checked at the same time the doctor is investigating your mood.

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You get puffed or even dizzy at times

As adequate iron is required to deliver oxygen around the body, when iron levels are low, and energy demands are high, the muscles may not have access to adequate oxygen to function optimally. As a result, breathing will be increased in an attempt to get more oxygen to the muscles. As such, shortness of breath, even for fit individuals in routine daily tasks such as stair climbing or housework is a notable sign of low iron levels. A lack of oxygen to the brain, too, may induce headaches or even dizziness after sudden movement as the body works hard to deliver adequate oxygen to the right areas in the body.

You drink a lot of tea or coffee

The absorption of iron, like many minerals is impacted by other nutrients consumed at similar times. Calcium in particular inhibits iron absorption, as does wheat bran, which means that eating an iron fortified bread or breakfast cereal, along with milk is not likely to be doing a whole lot for your iron levels.

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Tea and coffee are also well known to inhibit iron absorption, a result of their polyphenol content. This means that if you are an avid tea or coffee drinker, consuming more than a couple of cups a day, you may need to cut back within a couple of hours of meal times to support iron absorption at your main meals, when you are more likely to be eating red meat.

Author Susie Burrell is a leading Australian dietitian and nutritionist, founder of Shape Me, co-host of The Nutrition Couch podcast and prominent media spokesperson, with regular appearances in both print and television media commenting on all areas of diet, weight loss and nutrition.

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