Erm, how do I know if I’ve got an iron deficiency?
Wondering what it means to have an iron deficiency? Turns out it’s quite common and not as complicated or scary as it sounds. The proper term is “iron deficiency anaemia” and it’s thought to affect some two billion people around the world. If you’ve started your period already, you could be at an increased risk of developing it. Why? Because a common cause of iron deficiency is blood loss caused by heavy periods.
Here’s the science: iron is super important because it is used to produce red blood cells. These cells help to store and carry oxygen in the blood. Iron deficiency anaemia is a specific type of anaemia where a lack of iron in the body leads to less red blood cells. If you have less red blood cells than you’re supposed to, your organs and tissues won’t get as much oxygen as they normally would. Less iron = less red blood cells = less oxygen.
So, what are the symptoms?
- Feeling tired, less energetic and generally a bit meh
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations (irregular heartbeats that you might sometimes be able to notice or feel)
- Your skin might look paler than usual
How do you get it?
Having any or all of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you’re anaemic, but you might be more at risk if you have:
- A low intake or poor absorption of iron
- Heavy periods
- You’re at a time in your life where your body really needs iron (e.g. if you’re having a bit of a growth spurt)
What should I do next?
If you have any of these symptoms or you think you’re at risk of developing anaemia, your best bet is to pop to your doctors and have a chat. If they think you might be anaemic, he or she will organise a blood test. If you’ve not had a blood test before, don’t worry! Some people aren’t keen on needles but we promise, it’s not painful and is pretty quick.
How is it treated?
If your doctor confirms that you are deficient in iron, then he or she will prescribe iron supplements for you to take. These will help to restore your iron levels back to where they should be. Easy peasy, right? The iron supplements your doctor will give you are stronger than the ones you can buy in pharmacies and supermarkets. According to the NHS website, you'll have to take them for about 6 months. Your doctor may carry out repeat blood tests over the next few months to check that your iron levels are back to normal.
If your iron deficiency is caused by heavy periods, then this will need to be treated too. Heavy periods can be treated with medication such as anti-inflammatories and hormonal treatments such as the combined pill and the hormone progesterone as a tablet or injection.
What about my diet?
If your diet is contributing to your lack of iron, your doctor might tell you to try eating foods that are rich in it! Some of these foods include:
- Dark green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach
- Cereals and bread with extra iron (the term for this is ‘fortified’)
- Pulses such as beans, lentils and peas
Some foods can make it harder for your body to absorb iron, so it’s wise to avoid:
- Tea, coffee
- Milk and dairy
- Foods with high levels of phytic acid (such as wholegrain cereals)
So, if you think you might be iron deficient, don’t panic. It’s very treatable, and deffo isn’t the end of the world. Go and have a chat with your GP and explain any symptoms you’ve been having. A simple blood test (be brave!) will confirm what’s going on and whether you need to take anything. Iron supplements and eating an iron-rich diet will soon help you get back to your normal, awesome self. You’ll feel more energetic, strong and ready to take on the world!