Too knackered to exercise, or too tired for chores? You might be low on iron. It’s one of the most common causes of unexplained tiredness, but iron supplements have got a bad rep because of some of their side effects.
1. What iron does…
2. Feeling exhausted?
Feeling knackered is such a common complaint that doctors have even given it a nickname — TATT, or Tired All The Time syndrome.
“One of the most common things you see in surgery’s is people feeling worn out,” and a blood test is often done to iron levels.”
After Vitamin D, iron is the second most common deficiency in the UK. Other symptoms include palpitations, feeling dizzy or fainting, restless legs at night, shortness of breath, cold hands and feet, and headaches.
3. Who’s at risk of being deficient?
■ Sporty types “Even among young women who are quite physically fit, the levels of deficiency are high – 60% of female athletes are not getting enough iron and it impacts on their performance.
■ Vegetarians “Iron found in meat is the most easily absorbed type and whilst healthy foods like beans, lentils and nuts might be good for you they can block the absorption of iron.”
■ Irritable Bowel Syndrome sufferers IBS means nutrients are often not well digested in the gut, so sufferers can be low on iron and vitamin B12.
4. Can we just eat more spinach?
There has been a drop in the amount of iron people are consuming and it’s down to changes in eating trends.
“People are eating 13% less red meat than they used to, which contains the most easy-to-absorb form of iron.”
More than a quarter of women aged 19 to 64 don’t eat enough iron.
To “just eat more dark leafy greens” approach is not practical as you would have to eat 17 tablespoons of spinach a day to get your recommended daily amount.
There are a few ways you can boost your iron levels. Vitamin C has been shown to improve the absorption of iron by up to 181%, so try having a small glass of orange juice with your meal. Some foods – such as milk, tea, beans and chilli – hinder the absorption of iron, so limit these.
5. The problem with pills
If your GP diagnoses you with low iron or anaemia, treatment is simple: tablets such as ferrous sulphate to boost your levels. But 80% of women taking iron supplements complain of unpleasant side effects. Strong supplements can be hard on your digestive system, and can cause black stools, constipation, diarrhoea, stomach cramps and nausea.
Menstruating women need about 18mg of iron a day, but many supplements contain 200mg. Because the body only absorbs the iron it needs, the excess left in the gut causes those nasty side effects.
Last year, there were over six million prescriptions for iron supplements in the UK, but 40% admit skipping their tablets altogether as a result of side effects.
Its an area where a clear message is simply not getting through and better education is essential.