Iron is an essential mineral that is required for a number of functions in the body, working behind the scenes to ensure your body runs smoothly.
Most notably, iron is a required component to produce red blood cells, which are crucial for delivering oxygen to every cell in your body.
However, there are several reasons why iron is especially important for women.
Menstruation: Women of childbearing age lose blood during their menstrual cycle every month. Blood contains iron within haemoglobin in red blood cells, so blood loss means iron loss. This can lead to a higher risk of developing iron deficiency or iron deficiency anaemia if not adequately compensated through diet or supplementation.
Pregnancy: Iron requirements significantly increase during pregnancy. This is due to the increased blood volume in the mother, the growth of the foetus and placenta, and blood loss during childbirth. Adequate iron intake during pregnancy is essential for the health of both the mother and the developing baby.
Breastfeeding: Although menstruation usually stops during breastfeeding, the iron requirements of breastfeeding mothers remain high because iron is passed from the mother to the baby through breast milk.
Now, this might lead you to ask: ‘what is a normal iron level for a woman?’
And ‘what is a low iron level for a woman?’
This article aims to guide you in understanding the importance of iron, how it functions within your body, and how to maintain optimal iron levels.
Understanding Iron and its Role in the Body
Iron is a dynamic mineral, critical for a multitude of biological processes that sustain life. The human body utilises iron in various ways, but primarily, it is essential for the production of haemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells.
Haemoglobin's role is to transport oxygen from the lungs to every cell in the body. Without adequate iron, the production of haemoglobin diminishes, leading to decreased oxygen delivery to the tissues and organs, which can result in fatigue and shortness of breath.
In addition to oxygen transportation, iron is involved in energy production. It contributes to the conversion of blood sugar into usable energy, fuelling your body’s functions and activities.
Therefore, maintaining a normal iron level is integral to ensuring you have enough energy to go about your daily routine.
Identifying Your Iron levels
Iron requirements can vary greatly among individuals and are influenced by a variety of factors. Age, health status, and particularly for women, menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and post-menopause are all key elements that can affect iron levels.
To keep track of your iron levels, doctors usually order a series of blood tests. These following tests measure different aspects of your iron health:
Serum iron: This test measures the amount of iron that's circulating in your blood at the time of testing.
Ferritin: Ferritin is a protein that stores iron in your body. The ferritin test measures the amount of ferritin in your blood, which helps understand how much iron your body has kept in reserve.
Total iron binding capacity (TIBC): This test estimates the maximum amount of iron that your blood can transport. It's a way of assessing how much more iron your blood can carry.
Transferrin saturation (TSAT): This test calculates the percentage of the transferrin (the protein that transports iron in your blood) that's actually carrying iron.
However, keep in mind that these are general guidelines; interpreting these test results can be complex as these levels can be influenced by many factors.
These levels can fluctuate in response to your diet, level of physical activity, certain health conditions, and the phase of your menstrual cycle. Therefore, the interpretation of these tests should always be done by a health professional.
Even with all this information, you should listen to your body. If you're feeling unusually tired, weak, or noticing excessive hair loss, it's worth having a conversation with your health professional, as these symptoms can occur even if your iron levels are in the ‘normal’ range.
Maintain and Improving Iron levels
Your diet plays a pivotal role in maintaining your iron levels, but it's important to remember that every woman's iron needs are unique and can change over time.
Eating a balanced diet rich in iron can help maintain and even improve your iron levels. Foods high in iron include lean red meats, poultry, and fish. These are known as 'heme' iron sources, and the iron they contain is readily absorbed by the body.
However, for those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, there are plenty of 'non-heme' iron-rich foods too. These include fortified cereals and bread, dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, dried fruit, and legumes such as beans, peas and lentils.
Pairing these iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C can further enhance iron absorption. Vitamin C, found in fruits like oranges, strawberries, and vegetables such as capsicums and broccoli, can help the body absorb the type of iron found in plant foods more effectively.
While diet is the first line of defence in maintaining healthy iron levels, there may be times when iron supplementation is necessary, such as during pregnancy or if you have been diagnosed with iron deficiency.
In such instances, iron supplements can be a useful tool to help increase iron levels. Remember, these supplements should only be taken under the guidance of a health professional, as excessive iron can also lead to health issues.
Additionally, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can also contribute to healthy iron levels. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and reducing stress levels can all support overall health and, therefore, iron health.
While low iron is associated with low energy and hair loss, keep in mind that too much iron can cause health issues as well. Maintaining a balanced iron level is important. You should consult a health professional before changing your iron intake.
Lastly, remember that changes in iron levels usually take time. A sudden dip or spike is rare and typically a sign of an underlying issue.
Regular monitoring of your iron levels, particularly if you're at a higher risk for iron deficiency, can help identify any changes early and allow for timely intervention. It's always better to prevent a problem than to have to treat one.