If you are feeling tired, addle-brained and distracted, Aunt Flo may be to blame. Women are at high risk for iron deficiency thanks to their reproductive processes. In the United States, approximately 6 million women of childbearing years are iron-deficient, and half of those will develop a resulting condition called anemia, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Women have several unique risk factors for anemia including menstruation, fibroids, pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum recovery. Although not all women need a supplement, many women of childbearing years will need extra iron. Consult your health-care provider before taking any nutritional supplements.
You may associate iron with manly men sweating at the gym. In fact, iron is a mineral that plays several important roles in the body. Most significantly, it works with a protein called hemoglobin to deliver oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Iron deficiency can cause a condition called anemia in which your body has too few red blood cells or an inadequate amount of hemoglobin to oxygenate your body.
Iron supplements can be hard on the digestive system and often cause constipation and upset stomach. It's better to get iron from foods including red meat, chicken, beans, fortified cereals, legumes and dark leafy vegetables. If you can stomach it, liver is incredibly rich in iron. One serving of chicken liver has 11 milligrams -- more than half of your daily requirement. Perhaps a little more palatable is a packet of instant oatmeal, which also has 11 milligrams of iron. Adult women need at least 18 milligrams of iron per day, but that number increases to 27 milligrams during pregnancy.
The symptoms of iron deficiency and anemia include lethargy, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, headaches, dizziness, difficulty regulating body temperature and inflammation of the tongue. Other more subtle signs include forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, nervousness or anxiety and an inability to perform sexually.
Menstruation and Fibroids
Most women menstruate for four to five days, losing anywhere from 4 tablespoons to 1 cup of blood. Women with heavy menstruation or menorrhagia may bleed for up to seven days, need to use both pads and tampons for protection, soak through a pad in less than an hour or need to change a pad or tampon during the night. Sometimes menorrhagia is the symptom of an underlying condition called uterine fibroids. Fibroids are benign growths of the uterus typically treated with anti-inflammatory drugs. The extreme blood loss associated with menorrhagia is a significant risk factor for iron deficiency.
During pregnancy, a woman's need for iron increases by 50 percent for several reasons. In the third trimester, her blood volume will have increased considerably to supply oxygen to her developing child. Additionally, the baby will have stored up iron provided by the mother for the first six months of life outside the womb. Iron deficiency during pregnancy puts mother and child at serious risk of complications, including blood loss during childbirth and low birth weight. Pregnant women should eat an iron-rich diet and take a prenatal supplement with 30 milligrams of iron, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Carolyn Robbins began writing in 2006. Her work appears on various websites and covers various topics including neuroscience, physiology, nutrition and fitness. Robbins graduated with a bachelor of science degree in biology and theology from Saint Vincent College.