Back when I was a teenager, my mother told me I had to eat liver at least once a week because women needed their iron. Bless her heart, that’s the only thing mom knew about iron for women’s health, and fortunately I went on to learn some things of my own.
Did you know, for example, that 3 ounces of dark chocolate containing 45% to 69% cacoa solids provides more iron than does 5 ounces of beef liver? If mom had known that, our relationship could have been entirely different.
But seriously, getting a sufficient amount of iron can make a big difference in a woman’s health. Similarly, if you take too much (e.g., taking iron supplements when they are not necessary) can cause problems as well.
Are you tired?
One of iron’s main tasks is to transport oxygen to your tissues, which it does via hemoglobin in red blood cells. If your iron levels are too low, you can experience symptoms associated with too little oxygen, such as fatigue, shortness of breath, problems with concentration and memory, reduced ability to perform work, cold hands and feet, paleness, and apathy.
These are symptoms of iron deficiency anemia. Women can develop this type of anemia if they do not get enough iron in their diet and/or they experience heavy menstrual flow or other types of bleeding.
Do you catch colds?
Low iron means your B vitamins will not be metabolized optimally and your immune system will not operate as well, making you more susceptible to infections. Although most people experience the common cold, you can reduce your chances by getting enough iron.
Do you exercise?
New research published in the Journal of Nutrition notes that women who took iron supplements experienced an improvement in their performance. In fact, this study represented the first time investigators have confirmed that taking iron supplements can benefit exercise performance.
Specifically, the authors found that iron supplements allowed women to do a specific exercise with greater efficiency and with a lower heart rate than those who did not take the supplement. So if you exercise (and even if you don’t), the authors have suggested you have your iron levels checked with a simple blood test.
|A pregnant woman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Are you pregnant?
A number of studies of the impact of iron intake among women who are pregnant show that
- Pregnant women who have anemia are at greater risk of giving birth to a low-weight infant
- Low intake of iron (but not necessarily having anemia) even before pregnancy and extending into the first trimester can have a negative effect on the developing brain
- Women who took sufficient amounts of iron, vitamin A, and folic acid while they were pregnant were more likely to give birth to children who had better working memory, fine motor skills, and inhibitory control than those who took only vitamin A
Are you worried about Alzheimer’s disease?
Nearly two-thirds of the people with Alzheimer’s disease are women, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. One possible way to help reduce this greater risk is to not overdo your iron intake. Yes, too much iron may cause health problems beyond causing constipation.
According to the findings of a new study in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, higher intake of iron and potassium was associated with an increased risk of developing mild cognitive impairment and other mild cognitive disorders. About 15 percent of people with mild cognitive impairment progress to Alzheimer’s disease each year.
How much iron do you need?
According to the Food and Nutrition Board, women ages 19 to 50 need 18 milligrams (mg) daily and 27 mg if they are pregnant. Women age 51 years and older need 8 mg. The Board also recommends women who are vegetarians or vegan increase those figures by 1.8 times since the iron in meat and fish (called heme iron) is more available to the body than is non-heme iron (found in plants).
If you are looking for food sources of iron, be sure to add these iron-rich items to your diet. For women who want to avoid red meat and other animal products, there are plenty of great plant-based sources of iron from which to choose.
Cherbuin N et al. Dietary mineral intake and risk of mild cognitive impairment: the PATH through Life Project. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience 2014 Feb 4: 6:4
Pasricha S-R et al. Iron supplementation benefits physical performance in women of reproductive age: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Nutrition 2014 Jun 1