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Iron Deficiency Awareness

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It’s quite common to feel tired and rundown—so is it possible to have an iron deficiency and not even know it? Madeline Calfas, RN and Nat. Nutritionist, tells us more.

It’s a busy times to be alive. There’s a lot of pressure on people today to hustle, to have it all, and then to cap off those blink-and-you-miss-it days of work, socialising and personal passion projects with a healthy, nutritious meal and eight hours of sleep. Yes, it’s no wonder we all feel a little exhausted — but what if that exhaustion is a sign of something else?

Fatigue and lethargy are symptoms for a variety of different health conditions. Yet undoubtedly one of the most common health conditions suffered in Australia is iron deficiency, with Victoria’s Better Health website stating that one in eight people aged two years and older do not consume enough iron to meet their needs.

“Iron is an essential nutrient that is responsible for many processes in the body, in particular the transportation of oxygen, the production of myoglobin (a protein that helps to store oxygen in the muscle), the immune system and enzyme production,” Madeline Calfas, RN and Nat. Nutritionist, says. With this important role to play, it’s no wonder that a depletion of iron can have symptoms such as fatigue, lethargy, and poor memory and concentration.

“Still, it is very easy to be iron deficient and not realise it,” Madeline says. “The early signs of iron deficiency (fatigue, lethargy and brain fog) are very vague and general, so it is easy to attribute them to something else such as lifestyle — a mum running around after her children, someone who works very long hours, an athlete who trains several days a week etc. It actually happens more frequently than you would probably expect.”

As iron deficiency becomes more serious, symptoms can progress to include poor wound healing and limited ability to fight off infection, as well as poor ability to perform at school or work and breathlessness.

“As your iron stores continue to deplete, you will become more fatigued and lethargic,” Madeline says. “Your immune system will continue to shut down, making you more susceptible to diseases, and unable to fight off any disease or infection you do have. You may develop iron-deficiency anaemia, which happens when your iron levels are too low to help your body produce red blood cells. Your brain function will continue to decline, and your heart and lungs develop a much higher risk of developing complications such as tachycardia (an abnormally fast heartbeat) or even heart failure (as your heart muscle is not strong enough to continue to pump the blood around your body).”

For these reasons, it’s important to visit your healthcare practitioner if you suspect that you may suffer from iron deficiency, as well as for an annual check-up, including bloodwork, once per year.

What to do if you suspect it’s you

If you suspect you may suffer from an iron deficiency, or if you have experienced any of the symptoms mentioned above for a prolonged period of time, it’s important to get a blood test to help with a correct diagnosis. “This can be done through your healthcare provider and should really include a full iron panel (not just iron stores) to show the full picture and should include iron stores (serum iron), saturation, Total iron binding capacity and transferrin,” Madeline says.

Once your requesting practitioner has your results, they will assess them to determine if you are indeed iron deficient and work with you to formulate a treatment plan that should involve monitoring your iron levels.

One of the first places to start when it comes to treatment is diet. “A diet that contains plenty of iron-rich foods is a great way to boost your iron levels,” Madeline says. “Of course, if your ability to absorb iron from your diet is compromised, then it may be necessary to take an iron supplement as well. This would be indicated if you were increasing your iron-rich foods but your iron levels were remaining low.”

There are many different types and forms of supplements, with people responding to some better than others. If the one recommended to you doesn’t suit or has negative side effects, experiment until you find the best fit for you.

She goes on to add that when iron stores are very low, an IV infusion can be an effective way to increase iron levels faster.

Madeline Calfas is a RN and Nat. Nutritionist. You can follow her online at @the_wellness_factor

WellBeing recommends consulting with your GP for any medical advice.

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Lauren Clarke

Lauren Clarke

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