Iron is a key component in producing a protein in red blood cells that carry oxygen from your lungs to every cell in your body. Iron gives you energy because it allows your tissues, muscles and cells to receive and absorb oxygen. With proper oxygenation and blood flow your muscles tire slower, your brain thinks faster and your stamina lasts longer.
How does iron specifically factor into oxygenation? Let’s get slightly more scientific. Iron is mainly used to make hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein found in red blood cells that transfers oxygen from your lungs to your tissues. Myoglobin is responsible for accepting, storing and releasing oxygen in muscles.
About 70 percent of your body's iron is found in hemoglobin and myoglobin according to The University of California. They go on to say that the other usage (about 6 percent) of a body’s iron stores are needed in proteins for respiration and energy metabolism, immune function and collagen production. Iron is a vital nutrient to maintain energy and feel rejuvenated.
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with over 7.8 million adolescent girls and women of childbearing age classified as iron deficient.
Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to iron deficiency. In 2006 the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that 18% of pregnant women in the United States had an iron deficiency.
“Rates of deficiency were 6.9% among women in the first trimester,14.3% in the second trimester, and 29.7% in the third trimester.”
The CDC warns that the most severe form of iron-deficiency, called iron-deficiency anemia, is associated with a twofold increase risk for preterm delivery and a threefold risk for a low birth weight baby.
Additional side effects of low iron include:
According to the Institute of Medicine the daily recommended dietary allowances (RDA) for iron is as follows:
Non-pregnant, pre-menopausal women need 18 mg of iron daily to keep up with proper red blood cell production. Blood lose from menstruation is the main reason women need far more iron in their diet than men. (Thanks Aunt Flow!)
Pregnant women require 27 mg of iron per day to keep up with their body’s demand for both new blood and tissue. But don’t rush out for iron supplements right away! Iron needs during the first trimester are actually lower than pre-pregnancy needs according to the World Health Organization. (Because you aren’t menstruating and that little fetus is still tiny.) Iron demand increases during the second half of the pregnancy and is most vital during the third trimester. The CDC explains why:
“Among pregnant women, expansion of blood volume by approximately 35% and growth of the fetus, placenta, and other maternal tissues increase the demand for iron threefold in the second and third trimesters. Although menstruation ceases and iron absorption increases during pregnancy, most pregnant women who do not take iron supplements to meet increased iron requirements during pregnancy cannot maintain adequate iron stores, particularly during the second and third trimesters.”
Lactating women need only 9 mg of iron each day to stay healthy. This is because your body is no longer creating blood and cells for two AND you don’t lose blood each month through menstruation. The National Center for Biotechnology Information of the U.S. National Library of Medicine provide more details:
“Although iron losses in milk during 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding are equivalent to approximately 14% of the average woman's iron stores, this is only about half of what is ordinarily lost through menstruation."
However, women must take into consideration the amount of blood loss (thus iron loss) during childbirth. "In my experience, women are often iron deficient in the immediate postpartum period," says Dr. Alex Carrasco. In order to rebuild iron stores and other vital nutrients you could continue taking your prenatal vitamins for several weeks after childbirth. Remember to consult with your OBGYN before taking any medications.
Your body does not make iron naturally on it’s own. The only way to keep iron levels up is to add iron into your diet or take an iron supplement. There are two types of iron – heme iron found in fish, poultry and meat and non-heme iron, found in plant-based foods and iron-fortified foods. The CDC reports that heme iron is two to three times more absorbable than non-heme iron.
Foods with high levels of heme iron:
Foods with high levels of non-heme iron:
Alejandra Carrasco, M.D. is board certified in Family Medicine and Integrative and Holistic Medicine. She is a certified practitioner by the Institute of Functional Medicine and has spent the last decade studying nutrition, integrative, preventative, and functional medicine. Dr. Alex is the founder of Nourish Medicine, a functional medicine practice in Austin, Texas that blends the best of natural medicine, conventional medicine, and personalized medicine. Her own experiences as a mother of three fuels her passion for helping families address the root cause of ailments rather than simply masking the symptoms.
Q: How would you describe the importance of iron in a woman’s overall health?
"Iron is a major component of hemoglobin that carries oxygen to your entire body. It also plays a critical role within cells in oxygen utilization, enzymatic reactions and in overall cell function throughout the body. Iron deficiency affects ALL body functions!"
Q: How can a woman tell if she is iron deficient?
"If you are dealing any of the following: fatigue, brain fog, recurring illness, weakness, elevated heart rate, cold hands and feet, feeling dizzy, or shortness of breath, get your iron levels checked! It’s such an under-diagnosed condition. I recommend you have your doctor check a CBC, ferritin level, and iron saturation levels. You may require treatment with an iron supplement. And of course, increase your iron-rich foods."
Q: Is there a big difference between getting iron from heme or non-heme foods? Do you recommend one over the other?
"Heme-based iron is much more absorbable than non-heme forms. I would recommend eating foods from both groups on a daily basis. Also, eating vitamin C rich food with iron-rich food increases iron absorption. So, if you are going to eat red meat, for example, consider making a citrus marinade to go with it."
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Folate and folic acid play a vital role in embryo development, healthy pregnancies, and infant survival rates. Up to 50% or more of neural tube defects could be prevented with proper folic acid supplementation prior to conception, reports The American Academy of Pediatrics. Read more about this important micronutrient for women of childbearing age and learn the recommended daily intake as well as foods that provide folate.