Most people don’t think of iron as being a critical nutrient. The truth is that an iron-poor diet can slow growth, impact motor skills, make thinking more difficult, reduce work capacity, affect visual and hearing functioning, and cause crippling fatigue. Our bodies need iron to create the hemoglobin in red blood cells, which carries oxygen from our lungs to everything else. Without adequate dietary iron, our bodies don’t work right, and if left without care, can even lead to death. Living with Iron-Deficiency Anemia sometimes seems like a never-ending battle to me. It’s important to know that it can be managed for a full life.
My Iron-Deficiency Anemia Story
In 2013, I thought that my fibromyalgia had taken a serious turn for the worse. My fatigue was out of control. Focusing my mind was difficult and confusing. I was weak, dizzy, and short of breath. There were frequent episodes of my vision blacking out. While I struggled to maintain some sense of a normal life, in reality, I barely left my house. When I did leave, it was only for short trips, and I was afraid to do so alone. A trip to the grocery store would lead to a 4-hour nap. Socializing with friends for a few hours would wipe me out for the next several days. All of my symptoms could be attributed to fibromyalgia, so I put off going to the doctor. I was afraid to hear that I would have to continue living in such a degraded condition.
In February 2014, my daughter and I took a luxury cruise, and I slept almost the entire time. On the day we docked in the port I was most excited to visit, I ate breakfast in the main dining room. That alone wore me out and I returned to the room to sleep. Though the room was nice, I was crushed at my inability to make it to the beach. Later in the trip I developed severe bruising. I decided enough was enough and I needed to see my doctor as soon as we got home.
The doctor didn’t think my downward spiral was caused by my fibromyalgia. Instead, she ordered a battery of blood tests. Soon we confirmed that I had a rather severe case of Iron-Deficiency Anemia. The doctor and I chose a conservative route and put me on a year-long course of therapy to rebuild the iron in my blood. I was able to rebuild and maintain my red blood cell count living with Iron-Deficiency Anemia through managed care. I continued to take an iron supplement, but never really kicked my fatigue. That lingering symptom was attributed to the fibromyalgia.
lash forward to a month ago, in 2018, when I had a sleep study scheduled. After a very thorough discussion with the specialist about my medical history, she was convinced that my battle with Iron-Deficiency Anemia was ongoing. More blood work showed that she was absolutely correct. My hemoglobin levels had recovered, but not my ferritin levels (the stored iron). Due to gastrointestinal abnormalities I have, my nutrient malabsorption would be ongoing. After 4 years of daily iron therapy designed for a “normal” person, my body was still struggling to build up the stores of iron it needs to function at an optimal level.
Iron-Deficiency Anemia is something that I will have to keep an eye on for the rest of my life. However, with therapy, I can manage it to the point that I am symptom free. I am still fighting, but thanks to the sleep specialist, I have a new supplement regimen to better support my needs. My grocery shopping has changed to include more iron rich foods, and my husband bought me a fun little tool to help increase iron in our food. I feel like I have a more energy these days, though I’m not going to be running any marathons. In a couple of months, I return to the clinic for another round of blood tests. I won’t know how well the new supplement regimen is working until then. Living with Iron-Deficiency Anemia takes care and attention, but then, shouldn’t we be treating our bodies with care anyway?
9 Things You Should Know About Iron-Deficiency Anemia
Iron deficiency anemia results when iron demand by the body is not met by nutritional iron absorption from the diet. It’s important to include iron-rich foods in your diet.
Low iron is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide. According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10% of women in the USA are living with iron-deficiency anemia
Iron deficiency can occur in anyone, though women and children have the most risk to develop anemia. Starting at adolescence, a woman’s daily iron needs increase due to monthly blood loss.
Never-ending fatigue is one of the most obvious signs of anemia. Other symptoms include headache, dizziness, difficulty breathing, and sometimes even a fast heartbeat. Another interesting symptom (one that I had) is the quirky compulsion to chew ice, called “pica”
Venus Williams, Selena Gomez, and Angelina Jolie have all shared their stories of struggling through living with iron-deficiency anemia.
Lean beef, chicken, shellfish, white beans, cashews, pumpkin seeds, leafy greens, and dark chocolate are all great sources of dietary iron.
Increase the level of iron in foods cooked by using cast iron cookware. This works best when cooking high-acid foods because the acids encourage the leaching of iron out of the pan.
If you take iron supplements, absorption occurs more readily when taken on an empty stomach. Vitamin C can boost iron absorption. If you don’t want to add even more pills, try drinking big glass of orange juice.
It’s not recommended for adults to take more than 45 mg of iron a day, unless they are under close medical supervision.
Listen up Spoonie Squad!
To all my spoonies and chronic babes out there, if you have any of the symptoms of Iron-Deficiency Anemia please talk to your doctor about it. Don’t assume that it’s just a new part of a diagnosis that you already have. That’s an easy trap to fall into. If you are experiencing new symptoms, or more intense symptoms than before, you should let your medical team know what is going on. Iron-Deficiency Anemia can be diagnosis with a simple blood test, and for most people brought under control quickly.
Here are some sources for more information.
- American Family Physician Iron Deficiency Anemia
- National Institute of Health Iron Fact Sheet
- Mayo Clinic Ferritin Tests