Let's talk about iron deficiency, a condition that affects mostly women and children worldwide. Our latest episode of the Caring Support Podcast explores this condition and provides valuable information from an actual patient, Jen Logan, who happens to be our company's VP of Product and Research. Keep reading to find out how the conversation went.
The content presented both in this blog post and the aforementioned podcast is for informational purposes only and is not intended to serve as diagnosis or medical advice. Always consult your healthcare provider for information about specific medical conditions before making any healthcare decisions.
JEN LOGAN: I think I was iron deficient for a very, very long time, but being a mom (I have two kids) you're kind of told you're going to be really tired like it's the new normal. So, I took that to heart, right? Like this is a new normal or sometimes you don't get enough sleep, like your 8 hours of sleep. I eat well. I do have a lot of meat in my diet, lots of leafy green vegetables, nuts, and dried fruit, which are all really high in iron so I never put two and two together. It wasn't until I had a specific test, the ferritin test, that I found out what was going on.
There are two tests that you can take to indicate if you have low levels of iron and know if it's you are iron deficient or anemic. The first one, I think the go-to one, is the hemoglobin test that looks at the hemoglobin levels in your blood. And I think that's the most common one. But you can also take a ferritin test to look at your ferritin stores. And for me, it was that test that indicated that I was iron deficient. My hemoglobin was quite low but still normal. Hemoglobin carries oxygen around your body, and you need iron to make hemoglobin. However, for me, it was really the ferritin levels that were extremely low. So, you can have low ferritin but still, kind of be OK. But mine was like very, very low and so that's when my doctor, who had ordered that test for me, said "It's really low. We're going to have to put you on iron supplements to boost that."
When it comes to my symptoms, when I look back, it was just being really tired. And as I said, I associated that with like having two kids, the COVID-19 pandemic, and just doing a lot.. working full time, working on a startup as well. You just think "well, that's life, right? I'm just going to be tired for a while." Also, concentration was a big one for me. Particularly during COVID, it got worse, probably with levels of stress as well. Sitting and concentrating at work was becoming really, really difficult. Even if I had slept, even if I had no distractions, it was difficult. And that, I think, was bothering me the most. So, you can have an association of symptoms with an iron deficiency that's more like mental health symptoms, which are not as well known. There's a link between not being able to concentrate or feeling anxious, those types of symptoms are now being linked with iron deficiencies as well. And I found that for me anyways, that was the most concerning. And so when I started to do my own research and look into that, I started to make that connection.
I remember my kids would want to go to the park and I would do it. I would say "yeah, let's go" because that's what good moms do, but at the same time, there was a lacklustre about it. You know, I have to leave the couch to go outside. I got to take the dog with me. As well, I've been a runner my whole life, it's part of my coping mechanism. If I feel stressed, or if I want to clear my head, I would be to go for a run. And even that was becoming really laborious to the point where I just didn't feel like doing it.
So for me, being iron deficient (I wasn't quite anemic) really impacted a lot of areas of my life and I'm a real nerd too, but I just didn't make the association, which is why I thought it would be important to talk about it because I think women when we have kids, we know we're going to be tired and we think we'll get through it. However, if there's an easy fix for 9% of women in the population, it's worth getting checked out and it's worth getting the right test, which is getting that ferritin test done as well alongside looking at your hemoglobin, which I think was missed.
Other symptoms of iron deficiency are tiredness, lack of energy, shortness of breath, noticeable heartbeat, heart palpitations, pale skin, headaches, and you get ringing in your ear as well. Sometimes it can taste strange. However, these are things I never experienced. It was more like concentration and tiredness. Other symptoms like feeling itchy and having a sore tongue happen when you're quite severely anemic, as well as hair loss, so if you're noticing more hair coming out, or pica, which is when you want to eat things that aren't food (concrete, dirt, etc.). If you start feeling like concrete really smells good all the time, which I kind of had when I was walking, that really smells good. That's because you're missing minerals in your body, and iron is one of those minerals.
And as I said, there are now established links between mental health, so behaviours like having a hard time concentrating, mood swings, and irritability, and over time it could add to anxiety and depression. And for me, I could certainly see that if you don't have enough energy to go running and that's the way that you hold yourself together, that's your go-to, or you don't feel like you have enough energy to get off the couch and go for a walk if that's your go-to or whatever it is; that that can lead to depression or help lead to anxiety. If you can no longer do the things you enjoy or feel like you don't have the energy to do that, that can be a symptom of iron deficiency, whereas I think most people kind of just think tiredness and looking pale.
JEN LOGAN: The first thing that my nurse practitioner offered was going on the (birth control) pill. Since women are more likely to have iron deficiency, as I said, 9% of women have low ferritin levels indicating iron deficiency, it has been linked to blood loss. One of the main things for women is if you suffer from menorrhagia, which is like periods, which I do, you can lose a lot of iron each month. Two pregnancies, so babies need iron, you get twice the volume of blood when you're pregnant, so you need more iron for that. Interestingly enough, when you give birth, that extra blood that you lose through childbirth should help protect you against iron loss. But I did have two C-sections as well. So you lose twice the amount of blood through two C-sections. And over time, even if you're eating well, you can be in a situation where you are not replenishing fast enough what you're losing. So for me, I just thought "No, I'm really healthy. I'm doing everything well," but I was just not filling that bucket up fast enough. That's my nurse practitioner recommended going on the (birth control) pill because it lessens your periods and helps with stemming the blood flow. For many, that might be a great option. For me, it wasn't. I don't like the hormones and like how I feel on it. And there are other drugs you can go on to shorten your periods, but there are risks of blood clots, which I wasn't too keen about, but it might be a great solution for some people.
So what I did was take iron supplements, which wasn't great for my stomach to do continually, so I got an iron infusion. Now I take iron supplements in high doses when I am on my period. Research has shown if you take it every other night and double up, it absorbs better and it's easier on your stomach. And so I usually do about three times that. And I also have added beef liver to my diet. I'll eat that twice a week and there's just a whole host of other minerals in there. And you get everything you need from that.
I will take ferritin tests throughout the year, maybe every three months, just to make sure that yes, I am on the right path, and that what I'm doing is working. What I didn't know or failed to know is that there are two things that can block the absorption of iron into your body. One of them is dairy, and so I have limited how much dairy I would have. I have also limited eating dairy when I'm having something that's high in iron. So, if there is a Philly cheesesteak going and I wanted the iron from that, I might just take the cheese off and leave the onions on the Philly cheesesteak would be great because vitamin C helps you absorb iron. The second one is the polyphenols in coffee, teas, and green teas, which also help block or don't let you absorb the iron that you want. So for me, it's really about looking at your food, looking at what nutrients you're getting from your food and doing the right timing for that. If you're somebody who survives on coffee because you're really tired and you have two creams, that's kind of like a double-edged sword because like some people's go-to is cream and coffee, and both those things can stop you from absorbing what you need. So that for me was a big piece of the puzzle as well, just being smart about what I'm eating, when I'm eating it.
JEN LOGAN: Yeah, big time. It's the gloss, it's the gloss that came back for me. And just realizing that, although some people might be tired because their kids keep them up and kids are tiring, I think I had like an extra weight and that's just been lifted. That's what I mean when I say that it's like the gloss comes back to your life. And I was always quite a high-energy person anyways, and I felt like that was just kind of taken away from me slowly. I think that the danger here is that it's not like all of a sudden you're iron deficient and one day you wake up and go "something's wrong, right?" No, it's slowly emptying. You don't notice it. And then you have kids and you're like "well, this is just it. Like, this is what kids do." So for me, I think it's just like the gloss has come back and I can concentrate at work, which was really stressing me out. I would just spend a lot more time trying to do the things that I would need to do and pull my attention back to it, and treatment really did alleviate that. When I started taking the supplements and when I got my iron infusion, you could see that kind of veil coming down and then you're like "oh, I got it I know what it is now."
JEN LOGAN: Well, I would just say that, if you are feeling tired, it's just worth getting checked. Unfortunately, you would be looking at your blood, so there is a needle involved, and that might be a barrier to some people wanting to get checked, but it is definitely worth it. And I would say that getting both tests (hemoglobin and ferritin) is really important.
Finally, I wanted to talk about this because our health care system is propped up, the majority, by women; women who are probably overworked, and have been through a pandemic. And if 9% of those women are suffering the way I was suffering, and they could fix that by taking iron supplements, adjusting what they eat or when they eat it, getting an iron transfusion, whatever they need, they may feel better I think it's a worthwhile thing to look into. So I figured I would spread the word about getting a ferritin test along with your hemoglobin and see where you lie. And if you need more iron, it is definitely worth it.
Jen Logan is the VP of Product and Research at Caring Support. She is a successful Senior Digital Project Manager and Product Manager with great experience leading inclusive teams to excellence through empathy, transparency, humility, and of course a bit of humour too. Jen is also a mother of two who enjoys staying active with activities like running and going for long walks, as well as cooking healthy and wholesome meals.
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