Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Ironing Out Fatigue

It used to be that if you ate right, exercised and took Geritol for "iron-poor blood," everything would be "okay." Somehow, the health concern about iron deficiency seems to have gotten lost amid the mass of other medication marketing. Yet, iron deficiency is the number-one deficiency in women and the leading cause of fatigue in women between the ages of 15 and 50. Women in their childbearing years are especially susceptible to this problem because of the monthly loss of iron in menstrual fluid. According to Cathy Carlson-Rink, an ND and registered midwife in British Columbia, as many as one in four American women are iron deficient, and the tragedy is that this deficiency is easily preventable.
EVEN A MILD DEFICIENCY CAN BE HARMFUL
A shortage of iron in the blood deprives cells of the oxygen they require to burn the body's fuel. Even a mild deficiency can rob you of energy and leave you feeling constantly tired or even exhausted. Your concentration may become so impaired that you find it difficult to complete simple tasks. Still worse, Dr. Carlson-Rink warns that a mild iron deficiency can be linked to PMS, depression, impaired fertility and pregnancy complications.
Symptoms of iron deficiency include...
*Pale skin *Increased susceptibility to infections, such as colds and flu
*Brittle hair and nails *Shortness of breath
*Pale, dark circles under the eyes *Heart palpitations
*Rapid pulse *Poor concentration
*Fatigue and weakness *Poor sleep
*Impaired work and school performance *Cold hands and feet
*Slow cognitive and social development during childhood
THREE STAGES OF IRON DEFICIENCY
Although iron deficiency is harmful and may be a prelude to more serious anemia, Dr. Carlson-Rink points out that this common problem often escapes doctors' attention. Iron deficiency can be detected with a simple blood test to measure serum ferritin (the storage form of iron). Yet this test is seldom performed.
Dr. Carlson-Rink says that there are three stages of iron deficiency...
*The body's iron stores (serum ferritin) begin to drop.
*Red blood cells decrease in size and color.
*Hemoglobin levels decline.
Common tests for iron check only hemoglobin, she notes, which isn't affected until the third and more serious stage of iron deficiency has been reached. It is better to measure serum ferritin to catch a problem earlier.
WHO NEEDS IRON?
While women of childbearing years are at greatest risk for iron deficiency, Dr. Carlson-Rink adds that it's not just women who may require additional iron. Teenagers -- both male and female -- with poor eating habits or who are having growth spurts require a boost in iron, as do people with gastrointestinal disorders who do not absorb iron effectively. Conversely, iron deficiency is uncommon among most postmenopausal women and adult men. There also is a lot of research confirming that people who engage in regular, intense exercise (jogging, cycling and even swimming) require more iron.
GET SUFFICIENT IRON IN YOUR DIET
Iron deficiency often can be prevented simply by eating plenty of iron-rich foods. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Daily Value (DV) for iron -- that is, the average daily requirement for women of childbearing age -- is 18 mg. Note: Men, children and older people of both sexes need less iron... pregnant and nursing women require more. Men age 19 and older require 8 mg daily. The iron requirement for pregnant women increases to 27 mg per day. Good dietary sources of iron include...
*Lean meats, fish and poultry. These are more easily absorbed than plant sources of iron. There are two forms of dietary iron -- heme and nonheme. Heme iron, which is found in red meats, fish and poultry, is more easily absorbed by the body. Nonheme iron is found in plant foods and is the form added to enriched products such as cereals. The difference in absorption is due to their different chemical structures.
*Plant foods, including beans, tofu, apricots, raisins and leafy, dark green vegetables such as spinach, kale, bok choy, collards and seaweed. One cup of boiled lentils provides 35% of your daily iron requirement... one-half cup of firm raw tofu or boiled spinach provides 20%.
Note: While breakfast cereal manufacturers tout their iron fortification, Daily Health News contributing editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, warns that the form of iron used is not easily absorbed by the body, so it has a limited benefit.
Vegetarians may need to take in twice as much iron as meat eaters because of the lower intestinal absorption of iron from plant foods. Also, proper iron absorption is dependent upon adequate protein levels. Vegetarians who do not get adequate protein may not be able to store or transport absorbed iron very well. To improve absorption, eat iron-rich plant foods in combination with a good source of vitamin C, such as citrus fruits. Dr. Carlson-Rink notes that it is better to eat spinach steamed rather than raw -- raw spinach contains compounds called oxalates that decrease iron absorption.
WHEN SUPPLEMENTS ARE NECESSARY
If you fail to take in enough iron through diet alone, it's time to consider supplementation. According to Dr. Carlson-Rink, iron is best taken apart from the nutrients calcium, vitamin E, magnesium, manganese and zinc, which interfere with its absorption. She advises taking iron as a single liquid supplement and recommends the brand Floradix (an organic plant-based liquid iron supplement distributed by Flora Inc. of British Columbia, www.florahealth.com). The suggested dosage for women of childbearing age is 18 mg daily. If you are anemic, check with your doctor regarding the appropriate level. That said, it is equally important not to take in too much iron. Iron overload can be a problem, with some researchers suggesting that excess iron is implicated in heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis. High doses can cause gastrointestinal side effects such as nausea, constipation and abdominal distress. Excess supplementation typically leads to darkened stools. If you notice any darkening of the stools, it is likely that you are taking too much iron and that what you are using is not being absorbed completely. Be sure to consult with a trained health practitioner before starting iron supplementation.
Bottom line: If you feel tired for no reason, check it out. Ask your doctor about a serum ferritin test. Relief may be as near as the pantry or refrigerator.
Note: Dr. Carlson-Rink is a spokesperson for Flora Inc., the company that markets Floradix.

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