Are you a woman over 50 wondering if you need to worry about iron anymore? You might. Iron is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. Let’s explore why iron is still important for women over 50, the recommended daily intake, and how it can impact your overall health and well-being.
What does iron do for your body?
Iron is a vital mineral necessary for maintaining our overall health and well-being. It plays a crucial role in several important functions within our bodies.
One of its main jobs is to help our red blood cells carry oxygen from our lungs to all the different parts of our body. Without enough iron, we can feel tired, weak, and even have trouble catching our breath.
Iron also helps our bodies break down the food we eat (like carbs, fats, and proteins) into a special kind of energy called ATP. So, if we have too little iron, we might not have as much energy to do all the things we love.
It helps our brains work at their best, helping us think, remember things, and stay focused. If we’re low on iron, it can mess with our mood and make it harder for us to concentrate.
Iron even helps our immune system stay strong. It helps make the special cells that fight off germs and keep us healthy. So, if we don’t have enough iron, our immune system might not be as effective in protecting us.
Iron also helps regulate our body temperature. It helps our bodies use energy efficiently, which keeps us at a comfy temperature.
How much iron do women need?
For women aged 19 to 50, the recommended daily iron intake is 18 mg of iron per day. However, female athletes may require even more iron to compensate for the iron lost through sweating during intense physical activity. Those following a vegetarian or vegan diet also need higher amounts (32 mg).
Once women reach menopause (12 months without a period) the daily intake recommendations drop to 8mg.
Why is iron important for women over 50?
Although iron needs decrease after menopause due to the absence of menstruation, it remains an important mineral for energy levels, cognitive function, and overall well-being.
If you experienced heavy periods during perimenopause, you may find yourself entering menopause with low iron stores.
As we age, we generally start to have a harder time absorbing iron. As well, women in the menopausal transition experience a 6-fold increase in developing heartburn or GERD. A common treatment, proton pump inhibitors (PPI’s), such as Nexium or Prilosec, reduces the acid in the stomach and impairing iron absorption.
How do I know if I am low in iron?
Identifying low iron levels can be challenging, as the signs and symptoms can overlap with common menopausal symptoms. However, there are some indicators that may suggest lack of iron.
Fatigue and Weakness: Feeling excessively tired or weak, even with sufficient rest, can be a sign of low iron levels. This symptom is also prevalent during menopause due to hormonal changes.
Pale Skin and Pale Nail Beds: A paler complexion or pale nail beds, along with general paleness, can indicate decreased levels of iron and reduced oxygen-carrying capacity in the blood.
Shortness of Breath: If you experience breathlessness or difficulty catching your breath, especially during physical exertion or activities, it could be a sign of low iron.
Headaches and Dizziness: Persistent headaches, light-headedness, or dizziness can be associated with low iron levels. These symptoms can also be attributed to hormonal changes during menopause.
Restless Legs Syndrome: Uncomfortable sensations in the legs, accompanied by an uncontrollable urge to move them, especially at night, may be indicative of low iron levels.
Poor Concentration and Cognitive Difficulties: Low iron levels can affect cognitive function, leading to difficulties with focus, memory, and overall mental clarity. These symptoms can be mistaken as typical cognitive changes associated with menopause.
Heart Palpitations: Low iron levels can sometimes lead to irregular heartbeats or a sensation of fluttering in the chest, commonly referred to as heart palpitations. This can occur when the body tries to compensate for the decreased oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood.
Cold Hands and Feet: Insufficient iron levels can affect circulation, leading to decreased blood flow to the extremities. As a result, you may experience cold hands and feet, even in warm environments.
The only way to be sure whether it is menopause symptoms or low iron is to get your iron levels checked via a blood test.
Diagnosing and treating iron-deficiency anemia involves several steps to identify the underlying cause and restore healthy iron levels.
If you suspect iron deficiency anemia, it’s essential to consult with a health care provider. They will review your medical history, inquire about your symptoms, and conduct a physical examination.
To confirm the diagnosis, blood tests are typically performed. The most common tests include:
a. Complete Blood Count (CBC): This test measures various components of your blood, including hemoglobin levels. Low hemoglobin levels suggest anemia.
b. Serum Ferritin: Ferritin is a protein that stores iron. Low levels indicate depleted iron stores and can help confirm iron deficiency.
c. Iron Studies: These tests measure different parameters related to iron levels in the blood, such as serum iron, transferrin saturation, and total iron-binding capacity (TIBC).
Once iron deficiency anemia is diagnosed, the underlying cause needs to be determined. Common causes include inadequate dietary iron intake, blood loss (e.g., heavy menstrual bleeding), gastrointestinal issues (e.g., ulcers, polyps), or other medical conditions. Additional tests or referrals to specialists may be necessary to identify the specific cause.
One of the largest health studies on women, the Woman’s Health Initiative found that 5.5% of the postmenopausal women had iron deficiency anemia. Inadequate intake of iron was identified as the largest risk factor.
Good Sources of Iron
Increasing iron-rich foods in your diet can help improve iron levels. Good sources include lean red meat, poultry, fish, leafy greens, legumes, fortified cereals, and nuts.
Heme iron is the type of iron found in animal-based foods such as red meat, poultry, and fish. Heme iron is generally more readily absorbed by the body compared to non-heme iron.
Consuming foods rich in vitamin C alongside iron-rich foods can significantly boost iron absorption. Vitamin C helps convert non-heme iron (found in plant-based foods) into a more easily absorbable form. Orange juice, citrus fruits, strawberries, bell peppers, tomatoes, and broccoli are excellent sources of vitamin C.
Calcium can hinder the absorption of both heme and non-heme iron. Foods like dairy products, fortified plant-based milks, and calcium supplements should be consumed separately from iron-rich foods to maximize iron absorption.
Tannins are compounds found in tea, especially black tea and herbal teas like chamomile and peppermint. They can inhibit the absorption of non-heme iron. To enhance iron absorption, it’s advisable to consume tea between meals rather than with iron-rich foods.
Top five sources of heme iron are:
- Liver (beef or chicken)
Top five sources of non-heme iron are:
- Iron fortified breakfast cereals
- Beans (black, kidney, chickpea)
- Wheat Germ
- Pumpkin Seeds
Should I take an iron supplement?
If you’re still having periods or not getting enough iron from your diet, iron supplementation might be helpful. But I wouldn’t start an iron pill unless you have talked with your doctor and had a blood test.
Sometimes, if you’ve been diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia, your doctor may recommend a supplement that exceeds the daily recommended amount. But remember, it’s important to have medical supervision if you’re taking more than the recommended dose.
Iron supplements can come with some side effects. The most common one is an upset stomach or feeling nauseous. You might also experience diarrhea, dark stools, or constipation. If you’re dealing with constipation, adding more fiber to your diet or trying a stool softener can provide some relief.
To minimize side effects, you can start with a low dose of iron and gradually increase it until you reach the recommended daily amount. Taking the supplement with food may also help. Just keep in mind that iron supplements can interfere with certain medications, like those for restless leg syndrome or thyroid problems. Additionally, reflux medications can reduce the amount of iron your body absorbs from both food and supplements.
Can you take too much iron?
Taking excessive amounts of iron can be harmful and lead to several potential dangers.
Gastrointestinal Issues: High doses of iron can cause gastrointestinal problems such as nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. These symptoms can be uncomfortable and disruptive to your daily life.
Iron Overload: The body has a limited capacity to absorb and store iron. Consuming excessive amounts can overload your system, leading to a condition called iron overload or hemochromatosis. Iron buildup in tissues and organs, including the liver, heart, and pancreas, can cause serious damage and impair their normal function.
Organ Damage: Prolonged iron overload can result in heart failure and organ damage. These complications can have long-term effects on your health and require medical intervention.
Understanding the important role of iron for women over 50 is key to maintaining optimal health and vitality. By ensuring you meet the recommended daily iron intake through a well-balanced diet and, if necessary, supplementation under the guidance of a healthcare provider, you can support your overall well-being. If you have specific concerns about your iron levels or need personalized guidance on your daily diet, I highly recommend scheduling an appointment.