Low iron is often associated with women, but how do you know when your iron levels are less than optimal? If you’re an athlete, pregnant, or have heavy periods, or maybe consume little to no red meat, then you may require more iron.
An optimal level for most women is somewhere in the range of 70 to 150ng/ml.
What is considered low iron levels for women?
Many women have low ferritin without overt anemia but
experience all of the symptoms of anemia. Another iron category that you may fall into is having low ferritin levels but high serum iron levels. If that describes you, check out this post to understand why your iron levels seem to be moving in opposite directions and what you can do about it.
A ferritin level below 50 for most women is an indication that supplementation is needed. However, if you are experiencing the following symptoms even if your ferritin is in the “normal” range or close to it, you may want to talk to your doctor to see if supplementation is right for you.
- Shortness of breath
- Hair loss
- Lump in throat
- Increased heart rate
- Sore tongue
- Dark circles under eyes
- Restless legs
Increasing ferritin levels to 70 or higher nanograms per milliliter for at least 3 months has shown to be beneficial for hair loss as a result of iron deficiency.
It is hypothesized that the reason ferritin levels need to be up significantly before hair loss stops and regrowth occurs, is because the ferritin in your hair follicle is one of the last places the body is concerned about replenishing. Reduced ferritin in the hair follicle weaken the hair itself and lead to hair loss. Just be sure to also consume enough protein to maintain the infrastructure needed for vibrant hair.
What might make you more at risk for an iron deficiency?
If you’re an athlete or work out hard on a consistent basis, then you may be at risk for iron deficiency. Iron is responsible for creating red blood cells that in turn transport oxygen in the body and no amount of caffeine or “super” supplement can make up for an iron deficiency. Without optimal iron levels, athletes will find themselves underperforming and many times push themselves even harder, further exacerbating an iron-deficiency.
35% of female athletes are iron deficient and 5% of male athletes are iron deficient.European Journal of Applied Physiology
Hepcidin is a hormone that increases 3-6 hours post exercise and inhibits iron absorption and assimilation. Physical exertion itself can destroy red blood cells. Sweat and bleeding from the gastrointestinal tract can cause a loss of iron.
In fact, runners can be especially prone to iron loss via a process called, footstrike hemolysis. Iron is stored in red blood cells and when our feet hit the ground in running, that impact destroys red blood cells.
Most women will need about 30mg of elemental iron a day during pregnancy to make up for the increased demand produced by the increased blood volume, developing baby, and placenta.
Iron is a key nutrient, responsible for the development of the baby’s’ brain (often we think about folate and choline but without enough iron no amount of folate and choline will matter), optimal oxygen levels, and overall growth and maturing the baby.
Many mothers take a prenatal supplement containing iron. Unfortunately, not only are the forms in even the best prenatal inferior related to absorption and side effects, their potency is hindered because of the packaging of other minerals like calcium which directly binds to and hinders iron absorption.
In the United States, 1 in 5 pregnant women develop iron deficiency by the end of their pregnancy.Saudi Med J. 2015; 36(2): 146–149
Depending on your iron levels going into pregnancy or when you started taking iron related to your pregnancy, you may require more to meet the needs of your body. The demand for oxygen increases dramatically during pregnancy. Your metabolic rate increases by 15% and the amount of oxygen consumed increases by 20%.
In addition to these changes, the amount of air entering and exiting your lungs increases by nearly 50% when you are pregnant.
If you’re menstruating every month and not replenishing your iron stores by eating iron-rich foods or supplementing with iron, then you may be at risk of an iron deficiency. Losing red blood cells through menstruation every month can make it challenging for the body to maintain optimal hemoglobin levels needed to transport oxygen throughout the body. Heavy bleeding or prolonged periods can exacerbate low iron levels.
A recent study found that out of 236 menstruating women 27% were iron deficient and 60% were severely iron deficient. The severely iron deficient group had ferritin levels less than 15 ug/L.Nordic Federation of Societies of Obstetrics and Gynecology
Vegetarian and Vegan Diets
If you’re eating a plant-based diet, it may be a little more challenging to maintain optimal iron levels. One of the main reasons for this is how our body processes foods containing heme iron vs non-heme iron. Heme iron is found in meat, poultry, and fish. Non-heme iron is found nuts, grains, seeds, fruit, vegetables. Our body has an easier time absorbing heme iron found in meat than it does from non-heme sources.
If you are trying to maintain healthy iron levels, then consuming iron-rich foods such as spinach, Swiss chard, dried apricots, cacao powder, and cooked white button mushrooms may be sufficient. However, if you need to raise your iron levels, you will likely need to take an iron supplement.
While living a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle, it’s important to get your ferritin and iron levels checked consistently to make sure you’re staying in optimal range.
How do you raise ferritin levels safely and effectively?
Heavy periods, intense workouts, pregnancy, eating a vegetarian diet can all be contributing factors to low ferritin levels. That’s why as a woman you owe it to yourself to find out if your low energy is a result of low iron levels. I recommend getting the following blood marker levels checked (at the same time) in the morning while in a hydrated and fasted state:
- Transferrin Saturation
If you start supplementation, retest again in a month to make sure your iron levels are going in the right direction. A significant issue with most irons is a lack of absorption leading to oxidative stress and damage to the intestinal tract. This is why people experience side effects with most irons such as constipation, stomach pain, black stools.
For best results, take iron in the morning with a glass of water. Take with citrus fruits, berries to help improve absorption. Take away from dairy, supplemental calcium, coffee, supplemental fiber, tea, and wine or medication.
If you need an iron supplement that increases ferritin levels safely and effectively without the usual side effects, try Blood Vitality. Blood Vitality is a clinically tested blood building mineral formula that utilizes an extremely effective iron delivery system in the form of a whole rice protein chelate. This gets iron right where it is needed so women can get back to living their best lives.
Have you experienced low iron levels? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
Iron considerations for the athlete: a narrative review. Sim M, Garvican-Lewis LA, Cox GR, Govus A, McKay AKA, Stellingwerff T, Peeling P. European Journal of Applied Physiology, July 2019.
The impact of maternal iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia on child’s health. Noran M Abu-Ouf, Mohammed M Jan. Saudi Medical Journal, Feb 2015.
Effects of Anemia and Iron Deficiency on Quality of Life in Women With Heavy Menstrual Bleeding. Pirkko Peuranpää, Satu Heliövaara-Peippo, Ian Fraser, Jorma Paavonen And Ritva Hurskainen. Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, June 2014 DOI: 10.1111/aogs.12394