The human body requires nutrients for growth, sustenance, and repair. These nutrients are classified as macros and micros depending on bodily requirements. Just like macros (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) are essential to our body, so are the micros.
We cannot underestimate their importance in the functioning of the body as their inadequate intake leads to various deficiencies. These deficiencies can have a huge impact on our bodies and indirectly affect our day-to-day activities.
Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals and one such important mineral is iron.
Now you may have heard a lot about iron and its most common deficiency, anaemia. In this article, we will dive deeper into the significance that iron has in the life of women and understand certain things that women can do to protect themselves from iron deficiency.
Iron as an Element
Iron is one of the most studied minerals in the context of human health. The body of an adult human contains iron equal in weight to a large ‘nail’ (about 4 g). Out of this more than two-thirds (about 2.4g) is present in haemoglobin. Women have approx. 38 mg iron/kg of body weight.
Dietary iron combines with proteins to form haemoglobin, the red pigment of the blood. The main function of iron in haemoglobin is to carry oxygen from your lungs to all organs and to carry back some of the carbon dioxide formed in the organs, to your lungs for exhalation. This element is also an essential constituent of many tissues especially muscles. It also contributes to various chemicals which regulate certain reactions in your body.
Iron is stored in the liver, spleen, and bone marrow in the form of the protein ferritin. Men have higher stores of ferritin than women. Hence it becomes imperative for women to complete their daily iron intake through the diet.
Requirement of Iron in Women
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of iron for premenopausal women is 18 mg/day while for postmenopausal women it is 8 mg/day. (1)
Iron requirements vary in different phases of women’s life. The amount of iron needed is greater during pregnancy than at any other stage of life. It helps the foetus store iron, which lasts for the first few months after birth. Girls and women, who lose blood in menstruation also need to intake more iron.
Deficiency of iron results in a condition called anaemia. This happens due to an insufficiency of haemoglobin which requires iron for its production. According to the World Health Organization in 2019, globally 29.9% of women of reproductive age suffered from anaemia.
This number was equivalent to over half a billion women in the age group of 15-49 years. (2) Iron deficiency anaemia is quite widespread in India too. 53.2% of non-pregnant women and 50.4% of pregnant women were found to be anaemic in 2016, as per the NFHS survey. (3)
Iron deficiency anaemia is characterized by the paleness of the skin and eyes. As less oxygen is delivered to tissues it increases tiredness and may even cause breathlessness or fainting on doing light physical activities. Additionally, it may also cause headaches and hair loss.
Chronic iron deficiency anaemia lowers work tolerance, productivity, and quality of life. Susceptibility to infections increases too. (4) It even poses a serious threat to the ability of women to face the stress of childbearing and nursing. Studies have shown that severe anaemia was associated with increased deaths of mothers during childbirth while even moderate anaemia doubled the risk of maternal deaths. (1)
Why is Iron Deficiency more prevalent in Women?
Various factors make women more susceptible to iron deficiency than men. These are as follows:
Menstruation – Women who bleed heavily during their monthly periods are at risk of iron deficiency and anaemia. Bleeding causes iron to be lost from the body. If there is heavy blood loss, iron stores in the body can become low, leading to iron deficiency. Additionally prolonged blood loss, such as duration the period for more than 7 days, or moderate blood loss in combination with an iron-deficient diet, also depletes the iron stores in women’s bodies. (5).
Pregnancy – During pregnancy the need for iron in women’s bodies increases, especially in the last three months (3.0–7.5 mg/day). This is because more blood is produced by the body to support the growth of the baby. Studies have shown that some loss of iron occurs during delivery. Hence more iron is required to compensate for this loss in women. Plus, losing more than the normal amount of blood after delivery, called post-partum haemorrhage, may also lead to iron deficiency in women. (6)
Lactation – During the first six months, a baby is exclusively fed only the mother’s milk. Mothers’ milk is the only source of iron for an infant. It is scientifically proven that the amount of iron in breastmilk remains the same irrespective of the iron status of the mother. (7) Hence women need more iron stores to meet this demand of their baby if not it may lead to iron deficiency in breastfeeding mothers.
Prevention is better than Cure!
Indeed, being a woman is not an easy task. Prioritizing your diet over all the other important chores is a challenge and failure to do so becomes an important reason for micronutrient deficiency among women. Now, iron deficiency is reversible, but it is always better to prevent suffering.
There are various iron-rich foods, if consumed regularly they can keep you away from iron deficiency. These include eggs, liver, and meat which contain iron in a readily available form. Among the plant foods, leafy vegetables, cereals such as whole wheat flour, rice flakes, pulses, split and whole, such as bajra, ragi, jowar, and parboiled rice are also good iron sources. One should also keep in mind that acidity favours the absorption of iron in the body and hence vitamin C consumption is equally essential.
If you are suffering from iron deficiency or you feel any signs as mentioned above it is recommended that you get examined by a general physician. He may put you on iron supplementation in form of tablets which you may have to take for 3 months or more.
In 2011, WHO recommended daily iron supplementation with 60 mg of elemental iron to prevent iron deficiency in menstruating adolescent girls and women. (8) If the deficiency is severe iron injections may also be prescribed.
Now that you know the importance of iron, it is time that you even pay attention to your daily iron intake. Do you think you are consuming iron in sufficient quantities every day? Tell us about it in the comments section below.
Author: Dr Pooja Nilgar (Content writer and editor)
- Institute of Medicine (US) Panel on Micronutrients. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2001. 9, Iron. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK222309/A
- Yadavar, S., 2021. Improve Women’s Education, Health Services To Reduce India’s Anaemia Burden, World’s Highest. [online] Indiaspend.com. Available at: <https://www.indiaspend.com/improve-womens-education-health-services-to-reduce-indias-anaemia-burden-worlds-highest/> [Accessed 6 December 2021].
- Mirza, F.G., Abdul-Kadir, R., Breymann, C., Fraser, I.S. and Taher, A., 2018. Impact and management of iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anemia in women’s health. Expert review of hematology, 11(9), pp.727-736.
- Mansour, D., Hofmann, A. and Gemzell-Danielsson, K., 2021. A review of clinical guidelines on the management of iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anemia in women with heavy menstrual bleeding. Advances in Therapy, 38(1), pp.201-225.
- Garzon, S., Cacciato, P.M., Certelli, C., Salvaggio, C., Magliarditi, M. and Rizzo, G., 2020. Iron deficiency anemia in pregnancy: novel approaches for an old problem. Oman medical journal, 35(5), p.e166.
- Faridi, M.M.A., Singh, O. and Rusia, U., 2006. Mother’s iron status, breastmilk iron and lactoferrin–are they related?. European journal of clinical nutrition, 60(7), pp.903-908.
- Lopez, A., Cacoub, P., Macdougall, I.C. and Peyrin-Biroulet, L., 2016. Iron deficiency anemia. The Lancet, 387(10021), pp.907-916.