Ironing Out Deficiencies


Ironing Out Deficiencies

Feeling too exhausted to get off the couch? Catching every cold that’s going around? If you’re a woman, you could be iron deficient.

Feeling too exhausted to get off the couch? Catching every cold that’s going around? If you’re a woman, you could be iron deficient.

Iron deficiency occurs more frequently in women than in men. Menstruating women lose iron every month, and pregnant women need to supply extra iron to their babies. This is why men’s iron levels are usually okay while women are often playing catch-up.

Iron Deficiency ≠ Anemia

It is estimated that 400 million women in the world are anemic, and more than a billion are low in iron. Unfortunately, the billion low in iron are often unaware they are iron deficient. Iron stores (checked with a test called serum ferritin) need to be almost completely depleted before a lower red blood cell count (anemia) will develop.

One of iron’s main functions is to carry oxygen in the red blood cells to tissues throughout the body. Why do exhaustion and other deficiency symptoms (see sidebar) set in before anemia is diagnosed? Iron is also needed to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the fuel for each cell. If the body is low on fuel, it won’t run optimally. Iron is also needed for a variety of enzymes involved in proper brain, liver, and thyroid function; synthesis of hormones such as estrogen and progesterone; and heart health.

Who Needs More Iron?

It isn’t just women who need iron, however. There are increased needs during growth (children, adolescents, pregnant women); due to the menstrual cycle or increased athletic activity; when there is decreased absorption of iron (in seniors or those with digestive problems); and in those with inadequate intake (calorie-restricted diets, vegetarians, those not eating balanced meals). Iron deficiency in men is primarily found in athletes, growing boys, and seniors.

It is estimated that 15 to 30 percent of both men and women over the age of 70 are iron deficient. One study of 4,000 men and women over the age of 70 (American Journal of Cardiology, January 1997) found that lower serum iron levels were associated with a higher risk of coronary artery disease and were a powerful predictor of death from all causes.

More isn’t Always Better

Neither iron deficiency nor iron overload is beneficial to the body. Iron is needed in optimum amounts, and taking too much can cause some of the same problems seen in deficiencies. For example, preterm labour is linked with both too little and too much iron, as is heart disease.

Make sure you eat a variety of iron-rich foods and, if necessary, take an iron supplement. Since iron supplements can be hard to absorb, they are best taken in divided doses, separate from meals and multivitamins, as you can only absorb 10 to15 mg at a time. Recommended average dosages are listed in the sidebar, but you may wish to check with your health care
professional to see what’s right for your body’s needs.

Symptoms of Iron Deficiency

  • dark circles under the eyes
  • fatigue and muscle weakness
  • increased infections
  • shortness of breath
  • heart palpitations
  • poor concentration
  • low, listless mood
  • dizziness
  • cold hands and feet
  • chest pain during exercise
  • restless legs

How Much Iron do I need?

  • Menstruating women 15-18 mg/day
  • Men 8 mg/day
  • Children 7-10 mg/day
  • Adolescent boys 8-11 mg/day
  • Adolescent girls 15-18 mg/day
  • Pregnant women 27 mg/day
  • Seniors 8 mg/day


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