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“I am constantly tired and wonder if I could be lacking in iron. If I am, what can I do about it and how can I prevent it happening again?”—Alana
Yes, Alana—it is absolutely possible that a deficiency in iron is the cause of your tiredness, although obviously there could be lots of other causes too.
Iron helps the blood cells carry oxygen to our muscles and brains. It keeps us physically and mentally fit, strong and able to fight infections. A lack of iron will cause anaemia, tiredness, lethargy, pallor, increased frequency of infections such as coughs and colds, grumpiness, and poor concentration.
Iron deficiency is the most common dietary deficiency in the world for men and women. It is thought that up to 20 per cent of adult women in New Zealand, and 3 per cent of adult men, are deficient—most commonly due to one of the following:
Insufficient dietary intake, especially common in vegetarians.
Insufficient absorption, e.g. coeliac disease or inflammation of the bowel.
Excessive loss of iron, e.g. heavy periods.
Average daily requirements vary widely. We know that babies, children and teenagers require much higher amounts of iron, as do women who are pregnant, breast feeding or menstruating. In terms of recommended amounts, the following is a good guide:
Menstruating women—18mg per day (higher needs if periods are very heavy).
Pregnant women—27mg per day.
Breast feeding women—10mg per day.
Other adults, male and female—8mg per day.
Iron is present in foods in two forms—“haem” iron and “non-haem” iron. The body absorbs “haem” iron much more readily than “non-haem” iron. Foods containing haem iron include red meat, fish, chicken and liver. Non-haem iron is found in wholegrain cereals, vegetables (especially leafy green ones), fruits, nuts and legumes.
If you drink a lot of coke, tea, coffee or red wine with your food, this will markedly hamper your body’s ability to absorb iron. Adding something containing vitamin C will do the reverse, so either drinking real fruit juice or eating vitamin C-laden fruit is a great idea.
If you are concerned you may be deficient in iron, talk to a doctor or nurse about getting a simple blood test. Iron supplements are available on prescription if required, and can make a huge difference to how you feel.