The silent thief: signs of iron deficiency

The silent thief: signs of iron deficiency

This week I had my first iron infusion. I had been feeling fatigued recently and after getting my bloods tested I was surprised to discover that my levels were low - for me.

It's a health challenge that many women grapple with, often without even realising it. The sneaky nature of iron deficiency can slowly creep into your daily life, masquerading as fatigue, making you wonder if you're just not getting enough sleep or if there's more to the story, which is exactly what happened to me.  

Iron deficiency doesn't barge in; it sneaks up quietly. You might notice you're more tired than usual, despite getting your eight hours of sleep. But it's not just the fatigue; it's the type that makes your bed feel like a magnetic field every morning, pulling you back as you try to start your day.

Then there's your skin, losing its battle to retain colour, leaving you looking as if you've borrowed a vampire's complexion. And if you think your workouts are getting tougher because you're not "fit" enough, think again. Iron deficiency could be the culprit, making your muscles scream in protest because they're not getting the oxygen they need.

But wait, there's more: brittle nails, shortness of breath, and even an unwelcome pounding in your ears (hello, heartbeat!) in the quiet of the night. And if you've noticed you're colder than everyone else in the room, it's not just your preference for winter wonderlands; your iron levels could be dropping.

When I look back now, I had many of these symptoms but with travel, work and just life generally I had delayed getting those blood tests, despite suspecting that all was not right.

The detective work: getting tested

If the signs above feel eerily familiar, it's time to play detective. The first clue? A Complete Blood Count (CBC) test, which can be a window into your iron status. But don't stop there; ask your doctor for a ferritin test, too. It will show the iron levels stored in your body, offering a clearer picture than the CBC alone.

Deciphering the clues: understanding low iron

So, what do the numbers mean? If your ferritin level is under 30 µg/L, your iron storage is waving a white flag – mine was 25, while my iron came in at 11 – all considered to be in "normal" range. But here's where it gets personal: "normal" levels can vary. Some may feel the punch of deficiency at higher levels than others, underscoring the importance of listening to your body and working closely with your healthcare provider to interpret your test results.

Below is a more detailed breakdown of what's considered normal ranges.

Serum iron: Normal serum iron levels are generally considered to be between 50 to 170 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) or 9 to 30 micromoles per liter (µmol/L).

Ferritin: For women, the reference range for ferritin can vary widely, often cited as between 20 to 200 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) or 20 to 200 micrograms per liter (µg/L). However, after menopause, women's ferritin levels are expected to be in a range similar to that of men due to the cessation of menstruation, which can be approximately 30 to 300 ng/mL.

What causes iron deficiency?

I'm still investigating what has caused my iron deficiency, but some common causes are:

  • gastrointestinal losses due to issues like ulcers, polyps, colorectal cancer
  • frequent use of certain medications like aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that can cause bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract
  • intense athletic training can lead to a phenomenon known as "footstrike hemolysis," where red blood cells are broken down from the impact of running or similar activities, or through increased sweat losses, which although minimal, can contribute to overall iron depletion
  • inadequate iron absorption, which could be due to gastrointestinal disorders such as celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease, or even from consuming a diet high in foods that inhibit iron absorption.

Even a diet that appears to be iron-rich may not be effective if absorption is compromised. If you're experiencing signs of iron deficiency, it's crucial you consult with your healthcare professional to identify the underlying cause and develop an appropriate treatment plan.

The iron boost: enhancing your iron levels

Here's the good news: boosting your iron levels is achievable. The first ally in your corner? Diet. Target iron-rich foods like lean meats, spinach, and legumes. But absorption is key. Pairing foods with vitamin C-rich choices like bell peppers or oranges can catapult the amount of iron your body takes in.  We also need to consider the depletion of nutrients from our soils and food and how that impacts the levels of nutrients our body can absorb.  

Sometimes, diet alone doesn't cut it. Enter iron supplements, the reinforcements that can help bridge the gap. Just a heads up, though: they can be a bit of a double-edged sword, with side effects like gastrointestinal discomfort. Taking them with food and starting with a lower dose can help ease these issues. Or you can get an iron infusion as I did which is delivered via an intravenous drip. Depending on how delicate your stomach is it can also make you queasy. I was fortunate to not have any reaction. A good nurse will ease you into the infusion to determine whether you will react, monitoring any symptoms.

The ripple effect: how iron deficiency impacts women's health

The impact of iron deficiency on a woman's health can ripple out in waves, touching everything from her energy levels to her immune system. It's like running a marathon with a parachute attached; everything feels harder. For women of childbearing age, the stakes are even higher. Iron deficiency can lead to anaemia, a condition where you don't have enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to your body's tissues, making pregnancy a Herculean task.

But it's not just physical health that's at stake. Iron deficiency can fog up your brain, affecting concentration and productivity. It can be the unseen thief, stealing away your ability to focus and be present in your life.

The takeaway

Iron deficiency is a hidden challenge, but it's not an insurmountable one. By tuning into the signs, seeking testing, understanding your levels, and taking proactive steps to improve your iron intake, you can fight back. This isn't just about raising numbers on a test; it's about lifting the veil of fatigue and rediscovering your energy and vitality.

Remember, every woman's body whispers its own tales and signals. Listening closely to yours can guide you through the journey of overcoming iron deficiency, turning silent whispers into a story of reclaimed strength and wellness.


Iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia in women

Treatment of Iron Deficiency in Women

High Prevalence of Iron Deficiency Exhibited in Internationally Competitive, Non-Professional Female Endurance Athletes—A Case Study




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