Body, Herbalism, Women's Health
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Where’s the Iron?

Ruth Trickey’s Woman, Hormones and the Menstrual Cycle is one of my favorite books. I am always reading this book in hopes that eventually it will all sink in! What drew me to it currently is the sneaking suspicion that I am iron-deficient. For many months, I have been experiencing bouts of dizziness, tiredness, and my legs sometimes become very tired after just a little exertion. Once I asked myself, “am I experiencing anemia?” I have had regular dreams in which I am hemorrhaging blood in someway or another.  Last year I had a blood test in which I had 11 grams/dL, while the normal range is 12 – 16 grams/dL for women, after which I made efforts to increase my iron intake…but I feel my efforts were not sufficient.

Why would someone be low on iron? Take a look at the graph on this page for risk factors.

“Iron requirements for women are around 80 per cent higher than for men because of menstruation and child-bearing. It is estimated that iron deficiency is the commonest nutritional disease worldwide and that half of all woman consume less than the recommended amount of 10 – 15 mg daily” (249).”

How do you know if you are iron deficient or anemic? A blood test like I had can be helpful. However, one can be deficient even if the hemoglobin (blood levels of iron) are fine. Besides the red blood cells, iron is also found in the liver, marrow, spleen, muscles and can be deficient in these areas  while hemoglobin is normal.

When the blood cells are lacking iron during anemia, the red blood has an impaired ability to carry oxygen around the body, and the following symptoms may be present

  • shortness of breath
  • limb fatigue
  • dizziness
  • poor stamina (249)

Iron deficiency has these symptoms:

  • sore tongue, and cracks in the corner of the mouth
  • concave fingernails
  • low resistance to infection
  • in children, low resistance to infection and failure to thrive, slow learning, poor appetite
  • poor digestion due to low levels of gastric acid (249)

To increase available iron, one must increase iron absorption and increase iron intake. Food labels are misleading because rather than give the milligrams of iron present, the label gives the percentage. As we read above, women need 80% more iron than men. Does the label reflect the percentage for men, for women, or for an average? Iron should be given in milligrams, like the way protein is given in grams, and not in a percentage. By the way, many online sources recommend not 10 – 15, but 18 milligrams of iron a day.

To increase iron absorption, it seems that stimulating gastric acid production is the way to go. Think foods high in vitamin C, sour lemon juice, vinegar, bitter fruits and vegetables, aperitifs and Swedish bitters. Consume these foods while or right after eating iron-rich foods. The same applies to taking an iron supplement; pair it with a vitamin C supplement. My herbal “supplements” include a daily iron tonic taken at the the same time as I take elderberry and rose hip syrup.

Here’s another reason to quit the stimulant cycle; to increase absorption also means to decrease (or flat out avoid) black tea and coffee.

“The tannin in tea binds with iron, making it difficult to absorb. Coffee also reduces absorption, especially if taken with or after a meal, but not taken more than one hour before eating (250).

I have to wonder if soda, diet or regular, also decreases absorption.

As I searched the web for charts on sources of iron, it became obvious that there is a lack of straight forward information on iron content. Many sites simply state, “iron is in meat, shellfish, whole grains”. Other sites are completely dedicated to “non-meat forms of iron”, and while they have some sort of graph of what foods are high in iron, they don’t have the milligrams per serving. Then there are the sites, often from the medical community, that have just short list of popular foods.

This is a good reference site. as it has lots of research based info, and is more scientific than journalistic.

When searching for quality information about herbs, nutrition or the like, I look for sites that are advertisement-free, are not the first hits or even on the first pages of hits, have scientific wording, and appear like they made an effort to not be biased or trendy. Unfortunately, to be one of the top hits on google a website has usually invested a lot of money to get there, with the interest of making more money. Luckily, Rob, my husband, is a web programmer and knows all about this which has changed my perception about internet searching. There is a cultural myth that”if it is the first search result, it is valid and good”.

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