Modern life is hectic, so sometimes it can be difficult to decipher whether frequent feelings of lethargy and fatigue are simply down to tiredness or a poor diet, or the result of a pervasive health concern, such as iron deficiency.
Iron plays an important role in contributing to the body’s vitality, through the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells that help to sustain overall wellbeing. According to Dr Will Buxton, a founding member of Effect Doctors, “If your ferritin levels (stores of iron) are less than 30, you would be iron deficient.” If you have been told that your iron levels are normal, but have symptoms of deficiency, Dr Buxton shares that it may be down to your ferritin levels being “normal” on paper, but still less than optimal. “Irritatingly, in the UK the laboratories often have a reference range that [indicates] ferritin levels down to 15 is normal,” Dr Buxton says. “Ninety per cent of the population will be in between 15 and 150, but it is not optimal for it to be this low. With a ferritin of less than 70, you can have symptoms like hair loss, decreased energy and mood.”
There are two forms of iron, and maintaining both is ideal. “There is the iron that is available in everyday circulation, and there is ferritin – the protein inside your cells that stores iron,” explains Nicole Silver, nutritional therapist at Wild Nutrition.“Think of it as the difference between cash in your wallet and then a bank account – you want to have good ‘savings’ in case you need them. A good example would be blood loss during menstruation or if you had an accident – you would need to dip into your storage of iron. Therefore we want to maintain optimal iron and ferritin levels, and your doctor would check both iron and ferritin levels to have an accurate view.”
Why is iron good for the body?
“Iron contributes to the formation of red blood cells and haemoglobin (blood oxygen) which has an impact on our energy levels, the general capacity to feel good and function properly – including how physically active we can be and a feeling of healthy breathing,” says Silver. Iron is also critical for healthy brain function and our immune system. “People with low iron may also take longer to heal from injury. Experiencing low iron can affect how well we feel, or if we pick up bugs and infections.”
Who is at risk of iron deficiency?
Women who are menstruating are advised to get their iron levels and ferritin checked with the GP. “Heavy menstrual bleeding can make you more susceptible to iron deficiency, especially if this happens on a regular basis,” says Silver. There are also life stages which can make you more susceptible to low iron levels. “Teenagers, especially teenage girls where their need for iron is increased due to puberty; the onset of the menstrual cycle; pregnant women, especially in the third trimester when their blood volume rapidly increases to allow for the growing baby; and people who have experienced large amounts of blood loss – for example due to childbirth or injury,” she adds. Vegetarians and vegans are also at risk of being low. “It’s a bit of a misconception to think that iron is very rich in vegetables and whole foods such as grains or beans.”
How do you treat iron deficiency?
“You can treat it by taking it orally or through IV,” says Dr Buxton. “In the first case, most of my clients go for oral supplements for three to six months and should slowly see an improvement, though it does take a while.” Another option is to have it administered intravenously. “This will immediately replenish your levels but it is costly (an IV costs an average £895) and does come with the (rare but real) risk of allergic reactions.”
What makes an iron supplement work?
There are certain cofactors or nutrients that are needed in order for your body to absorb, utilise and store iron in the body. “Vitamin C is needed to help the body absorb iron,” says Silver. “This is often the case with synthetic iron supplements which can often be hard for your body to utilise and absorb. The second is the form the iron is in. Most synthetic forms will be only one type of iron, for example ferric iron. This is an isolated form and doesn’t contain the matrix of irons and co-factors needed for your body to effectively utilise it. Synthetic iron is good at increasing blood levels of iron quickly, but it is less efficient at helping you to store it in the form of ferritin. So often, once you have finished taking a course of iron tablets, your levels can drop again.”
“What you want to consider is taking a more absorbable form of iron which is not only better for your digestion but contains all of the cofactors to help your body absorb and, most crucially, retain the iron,” she goes on. “The Wild Nutrition Food-Grown Iron is so effective as it contains all the ‘matrix’ co-factors (enzymes, proteins and so forth) that support the transportation and absorption of the plant iron.”
What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?
Below, Silver shares more on the tell-tale symptoms to look out for.
This is one of the main signs of iron deficiency – an ongoing or unexplained lack of energy which is unusual for you. This is because your body lacks the iron it needs to make the protein called haemoglobin, which helps carry oxygen around your body.
2.Shortness of breath and/or heart palpitations
These two symptoms are also caused by lack of iron dependent haemoglobin circulating through the body, which means your body can’t access enough oxygen, leading to shortness of breath and/or a fluttering heart.
Without enough haemoglobin and oxygen, the skin can turn pale. So if you notice a change to your skin tone and/or dark circles under your eyes which are not due to lack of sleep or the amount of sunlight you are exposed to, this could be down to your iron status.
4. Hair loss
This is another common sign of low iron status, and this again is due to the relationship between iron and haemoglobin production. Haemoglobin carries oxygen for the growth and repair of cells in our bodies, including the cells that stimulate hair growth. So if you are experiencing unusual amounts of hair loss, it is worth getting your iron status checked.
This article was originally published on British Vogue.
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