Iron deficiency in women: Cause, effects and solutions
Iron deficiency is a condition that occurs in humans when the body doesn’t have enough of the mineral, iron. Iron forms as one of the essential components to produce haemoglobin in the human body.
Haemoglobin is a protein molecule that is found in the red blood cells and carries oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues and returns carbon dioxide from the tissues to the lungs. When the body doesn’t have enough haemoglobin, the muscles & tissues end up not having enough oxygen, which leads to a condition called anaemia. However, we shouldn’t confuse this with pernicious anaemia, which is caused due to the deficiency of vitamin B12.
In India, iron deficiency in women happens to be fairly common and poses a huge problem. Anaemia and low levels of haemoglobin are some common conditions that affect a huge number of women (pregnant women included) and children. It doesn’t only affect the population below the poverty line but is also quite prevalent in the urban settlement.
Having said this, let’s understand the vital role that iron plays in a woman’s body:
- Iron makes heme, which forms haemoglobin – a protein molecule found in the RBCs. Apart from facilitating the transportation of oxygen from lungs to body tissues, it also provides an oxygen storage through myoglobin, which is an iron-embodied protein that further stores & transports oxygen within the muscles and releases it to meet the metabolic requirement amid muscle compression;
- Iron is required by the bone marrow to produce haemoglobin;
- A number of enzymes in the body are iron-dependent for their functions – primarily those that are responsible for converting food into energy;
- Iron is responsible for cognitive functions and proliferation of the immune system cells;
- Iron also supports the enzymes that are involved in the synthesis of collagen and elastic, thereby, taking care of nails, skin, and hair.
- Iron normalizes as well as regularizes the menstrual cycle in a woman’s body.
- Iron aids the foetal development in pregnant women; the lack of iron can lead to preterm deliveries or low birthweight infants.
- Iron also facilitates a healthy conception.
What causes an iron deficiency in a woman’s body?
It’s not always about what you eat, but it’s also about how the food you eat gets digested and absorbed in the body. In fact, women’s bodies are at a much greater risk of developing an iron deficiency since monthly menstruation cycles regularly deplete the iron storage in the body. A few other reasons that can explain an iron deficiency are:
- Genetics – A number of cases of iron deficiency have been found that are more genetic in nature than anything else.
- Iron-deficit diet – This is possibly one of the most common reasons. Not eating nutritious and well-balanced meals can lead to an iron deficiency. In fact, regularly consuming junk food can also lead to an iron deficiency in the body.
- Lifestyle habits– Certain lifestyle habits, such as drinking too much coffee or having tea right after meals, block caffeine absorption, while smoking depletes iron in the body.
- Malabsorption – It is a disorder of the gastrointestinal tract that can lead to defective digestion and absorption of important nutrients; owing to the same issue, malabsorption can lead to low iron absorption.
- Body conditions & diseases – Cases of H pylori or parasitic infections can lead to a heavy loss of iron in the body. Additionally, conditions like ulcerative colitis, colon polyps, and uterine fibroids can cause anemia – a severe deficiency of iron in the body.
- Strong drugs and treatments, such as chemotherapy, also cause iron depletion or loss;
- A heavy loss of blood during menstrual cycles and in postpartum hemorrhage also lead to a significant deficiency of iron in the body.
What are some of the effects of an iron deficiency in women?
Iron deficiency could result in a plethora of issues in the body of a woman. Some of them are:
● Severe hair loss and dull/pale skin
● Low energy levels and mood swings
● Infertility and irregular menstrual cycles
● Miscarriages or death at childbirth; children born with deformities
● Weak immune system (especially also when a cancer treatment is going on)
● Effect on the motor & language skills of a developing foetus in a pregnant woman
What are some of the solutions using which an iron deficiency could be tackled?
One of the more common ways to deal with an iron deficiency is by including iron-rich foods in your daily meals. The top noted sources of iron are:
1. Moringa – Moringa oleifera is a rich source of iron and has almost three times the amount of iron that is found in the same serving size of spinach.
2. Amla – Also known as the Indian gooseberry, amla is a pretty strong source of iron and can be taken in multiple forms (as a snack or even in a candied form) to combat an iron deficiency.
3. Cumin – Jeera (Cumin seeds) are naturally rich in iron and can be taken in a variety of ways in one’s meals. It can also be brewed with water or taken with tea.
4. Leafy green vegetables - like spinach, broccoli, green peas, celery, etc. are all great sources of iron and can be very easily included in one’s diet. Be it a salad or a green smoothie, including leafy vegetables is fun and simple.
5. Dates and raisins – Studies show that 100 gm of dates contains 4.79 mg of our daily iron requirement. Similarly, raisins are extremely rich in iron with 100 gm of raisins containing 1 mg of iron – this is also funnily double the amount of iron present in the same amount of grapes. This is so because when a grape is dehydrated to produce raisins, its nutrients become more concentrated.
6. Pomegranate – Pomegranates are unarguably one of the best fruits that are available to tackle an iron deficiency. They contain iron, vitamin A, E, and C. The presence of ascorbic acid in pomegranates help pull up the iron content in your body as you regularly start including pomegranates in your diet.
7. Garden Cress Seeds – Halim (Garden cress seeds) are supremely high not only in iron but also in folic acid. Their regular consumption is known to combat anaemia. These seeds could either be roasted or even cooked before consumption.
8. Beets – Beetroots are famous for being rich in iron. Apart from a wide range of other nutrients present, beets also contain vitamin C that helps the absorption of iron. They could be cooked or eaten steamed with a chutney or juiced with other fruits or even as a smoothie.
9. Black Sesame Seeds – These oil-rich seeds are rich sources of iron and aids blood cell formation. They can be soaked, roasted or sprouted and can be added to any dish for flavor and crunch.
10. Mustard Seeds – These seeds are also rich in iron & copper and help in red blood cell formation. Just 1 tbsp of mustard seeds contains six percent of the recommended value of iron. They can be eaten raw or added to soups, stews, and salads.
11. Chickpeas – One cup of chickpeas provide close to 5 mg of iron. And these can be very easily added to salads and pastas. You can also make homemade hummus with olive oil, lemon juice, ginger, and chickpeas and use it as a spread or dip.
While we are talking about the importance of iron in our diet, it’s also essential to see how important copper is for the absorption of iron. To include copper in your diet, you can store water in copper vessels overnight and drink this water the next morning. Similarly, vitamin C also enhances the absorption of iron by capturing the non-heme iron and storing it in the body in a form that’s more easily absorbed by the body. Additionally, oxalates block iron absorption in the body, so oxalate rich foods like spinach, should be steamed or lightly cooked before consumption.
Are iron supplements helpful?
Iron supplements can be helpful only when one finds it difficult to take in enough iron through dietary measures. Stuffing yourself with iron tablets might not help and could even be counterproductive, causing constipation, which is a serious condition for anyone. It could also cause a sluggish liver In the end, it’s about finding the right balance of vitamins and minerals that are needed by the human body to form haemoglobin. As seen in this article, iron could be included in a variety of ways in our diet and combating an iron deficiency isn’t hard when the right steps are taken to cure it. Most forms of iron deficiency can be treated easily with an iron rich diet or supplements, if your doctor recommends them to you.
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