Feeling tired all the time? Then take a look at your iron levels

Many women have low iron intakes, with a recent study revealing that almost half of girls aged 11-19 and a quarter of working women are suffering from iron deficiency. The most common symptom of low iron levels is tiredness, leaving many women battling exhaustion and extreme fatigue.

Surprisingly, it is often people who are seen as healthy who are not getting enough iron from their diet. Research has also shown that a third of female athletes are deficient in iron and 56 per cent of regular runners and joggers are not getting enough of the mineral. This is because they lose iron through an action called foot-strike haemolysis, which is when red blood cells are ruptured as the foot hits the ground. So if you have recently increased your level of exercising, you should also check that you are getting enough iron in your diet.

Why do we need iron?

Iron LevelsIron is a vital nutrient, needed by our bodies to make haemoglobin, which is the part of the red blood cell that transports oxygen around the body. Our cells need oxygen to respire and produce energy, which is why iron and energy levels are interlinked.

In general, women have a higher risk of developing an iron deficiency because of the blood we lose during monthly menstruation. In addition, avoiding red meat and choosing a vegetarian diet are also risk factors in producing low iron levels. Over the last two years, women have been eating less red meat, with their intake dropping by 13 per cent on average.

A lack of iron can lead to iron deficiency anaemia. The most common symptoms of this include:

  • tiredness
  • lethargy (a lack of energy)
  • shortness of breath
  • palpitations (irregular heartbeat).

While tiredness is the most common symptom of low iron levels, there are other signs such as:

  • pale skin
  • having cold hands and feet
  • dizziness
  • brittle nails
  • hair loss
  • cracks at the side of the mouth
  • restless leg syndrome.

How to boost iron levels

You can boost your iron levels with some changes to your diet and by including the foods listed in the box opposite.

Up red meat intake: Red meat is rich in haem-iron which is more easily absorbed than the iron we get from vegetable sources.

Don’t mix iron with calcium or eggs: Our bodies use the same pathway to absorb calcium as iron, so combining the two will reduce iron absorption. So if you have milk with a breakfast cereal fortified with iron, the calcium will reduce the amount of iron you can absorb. Similarly, egg proteins reduce the uptake of iron from other foods, so avoid combining them.

Add vitamin C: Vitamin C increases iron uptake, so combining red meat with vegetables such as peas, broccoli and peppers will boost absorption.

Think when you drink: Tea and coffee contain tannin which impairs the uptake of non-haem rich iron from pants. But they won’t affect absorption if you drink them between meals. Studies also show that drinking in moderation can increase iron stores and some drinks contain iron. A pint of Guinness provides 0.3mg, while a 250ml glass of red wine has around 2.3mg of the mineral, although it also has tannins, which will reduce absorption.

Watch your weight: Scientists have found a link between obesity and iron stores. They suspect that being overweight increases inflammation, which in turn impairs iron absorption

What about supplements?

Although it can seem hard to get enough iron from dietary sources alone, supplements are not without their drawbacks. They are often poorly absorbed and gastrointestinal side-effects such as pain, nausea, constipation or diarrhoea are common.

However, if you lose a lot of blood during your monthly period or are struggling to reach the recommended iron levels through your diet, then iron supplements may be the answer. Speak to your GP or a state-registered dietitian for more advice.

Good sources of iron

The following foods are rich sources of iron, so try to include them in your diet.

  • Red meat
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Dried fruit, such as dried apricots
  • Wholegrains, such as brown rice
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Soybean flour
  • Most dark-green leafy vegetables, such as watercress and curly kale
  • Liver – but not if you are pregnant. Liver is also rich in vitamin A, large amounts of which can damage your unborn baby