Iron deficiency among women is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies. According to the CDC 10% of women are deficient in this mineral.
Iron is an essential mineral in the body that you get through food and sometimes water. Your body uses iron to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body, and myoglobin, a protein that provides oxygen to muscles. Your body also needs iron to make some hormones . Iron is especially important for thyroid hormone production.
Iron deficiency is common for most menstruating women and for women who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Left unchecked, iron deficiency can lead to iron deficiency anemia.
Sign of Iron Deficiency
When your body is out of balance, it’ll let you know. The key is to pay attention to what your body may be telling you. Low iron levels and especially low iron stores (Ferritin) can cause a number of noticeable symptoms. This list isn’t specific for iron deficiency of course but these are common signs.
- Shortness of breath (dyspnea).
- Chest pain.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Pica (a condition in which people crave non-food items like ice, chalk, paint, clay or starch).
- Restless legs syndrome.
Why You May Have Iron Deficiency
There are several reasons why you may be low in iron. The most common are blood loss and gut imbalances however certain environmental toxins can also cause iron deficiency. It’s important to address underlying root causes for iron deficiency (such as gut imbalances and environmental toxins) while increasing dietary sources of iron.
Too much blood loss without replenishing
- Donating blood
- Blood loss due to injury
- Large intestinal bleeding
Gut imbalances that make it difficult to absorb the iron you consume
- Celiac-induced damage to the intestinal lining
- Ulcerative Colitis
- Leaky gut
- Crohn’s Disease
- H. pylori – this is a pathogenic bacteria
I often use an at-home Organic Acid Test to check for microbiome imbalances. You can order this test here. If you have any of these gut imbalances, consuming iron-rich foods or supplements may not be enough. In these instances, I recommend speaking with your doctor about iron IVs if your levels are particularly low.
Environmental toxins that alter how iron is absorbed or have a chelating effect
- Dioxins 
- Perchlorate 
- Cadmium 
- Lead 
If you’re interested in learning more about what environmental toxins you may have elevated, you can order my favorite environmental toxin test here.
What Tests to Ask for To Check Iron Deficiency
I always recommend testing before taking any sort of iron supplementation. When I work with clients, I suggest they have the following tests completed by their doctor.
- A complete blood count (CBC): This would tell us your red blood cell count and your hemoglobin levels. If either are low, you may be anemic.
- Iron blood test: This test would tell us how much iron is in your blood but it is not foolproof because even if this test is normal, the amount of iron in the rest of your body may be low.
- Ferritin test: Ferritin is a protein that helps store iron in your body. If it’s low, even if your total iron blood count is normal, your body may not be able to use it. Note that the “normal range” for women is 11 to 300 micrograms per liter. This is a ridiculously wide range. Optimal levels for most women are from 70 to 150 micrograms per liter.
Best Foods for Iron Deficiency
Eating a diet rich in nutrients including iron is one of the first steps I have my clients take when reversing iron deficiency. There are two forms of iron in foods (and supplements), heme and nonheme. Heme iron is available in animal based foods while nonheme iron is available in plant based foods. We are less efficient at absorbing nonheme iron so keep in mind you may need to consume more plant based iron sources to get a similar amount from animal sources.
Foods with heme iron (starting with highest to lowest iron content)
- 3 oz of chicken liver
- 3 oz of mussels
- 3 oz of oysters
- 3 oz of cooked beef
- 3 oz of canned sardines (in oil)
- 3 oz of chicken
- 3 oz of turkey
- 3 oz of ham
- 3 oz of haddock, perch, salmon or tuna
Non-heme sources of iron (starting with highest to lowest iron content)
- 1 cup of tofu
- ½ cup canned lima beans, kidney beans or chickpeas
- 1 oz of pumpkin, sesame or squash seeds
- Split peas
- Raisins (note these are high in sugar so I rarely recommend them)
If you’re low in iron, paring iron rich foods with foods high in vitamin C will increase absorption. High vitamin C foods include:
- Leafy greens
Iron is an often overlooked nutrient but it’s such an important one when it comes to feeling energetic and alive. It’s important to incorporate iron rich foods in your diet and to consume optimal amounts of vitamin C. Regular testing can help you catch iron deficiency before it becomes a serious health issue. The great news is that iron deficiency is easy to reverse!