Does Your Period Affect Your Iron Levels?

How Your Menstruation Cycle Affects Your Iron Levels

Iron is an essential mineral that our body needs to function optimally. One of its key functions is to transport oxygen throughout our tissues, meaning it helps give our body lots of energy to function daily. However, iron is especially important for menstruating woman. This is because most our body’s iron stores are found within our blood, meaning a women will lose some of these stores each month during her period. 

Heavy Periods Can Lead to Low Iron Or Iron Deficiency

A heavy period can mean much more of these iron stores are being lost each month, increasing a woman’s iron needs and our risk of becoming iron deficient or anaemic. This is exactly why it is important for menstruating woman to be consuming enough iron within our diets. 

Are Low Iron Symptoms Being Overlooked By Australian Women?

Iron deficiency has become extremely common in woman, with many becoming used to symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, dizziness and headaches. As a woman, it is extremely important to monitor your iron levels, as untreated iron deficiency can lead to more serious conditions such as iron-deficiency anaemia or pregnancy complications in the future. However, there are many strategies that we can use to help avoid this, with diet being one of them!

Eating To Increase Your Iron Levels

Iron can be found in two forms, heme and non-heme. Heme iron is typically found in animal products, such as meat, poultry and seafood. While non-heme iron is found in wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds and leafy greens. Many food products such as bread and cereals are also fortified with iron, meaning they have extra iron added to them during the production process. When trying to improve or maintain your iron levels, it is important to consider which type of iron you’re eating and what you’re eating it with. Our body absorbs heme iron much better than non-heme iron. Meaning if you are only consuming non-heme iron due to being a vegan/vegetarian or because of personal preference, then it is important that you are eating a large enough quantity and variety of these sources. 

Similarly, iron is a very sensitive nutrient and its absorption in our body can be affected by other things we eat. Consuming calcium at the same time as an iron-rich meal can significantly reduce our body’s ability to absorb iron. Polyphenols are components found in some foods that can also decrease heme iron absorption. They are found in foods and beverages such as tea, coffee, wine, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and legumes. 

However, there are some nutrients that increase our body’s ability to absorb iron. Consuming foods rich in vitamin C such as oranges, strawberries, capsicum or tomatoes at the same time as iron-rich foods may help our body to absorb more of the iron from that meal.

What About An Iron Supplement?

Oral iron supplements can be extremely useful in treating iron deficiency, but should only be taken when advised by a health professional. High dose oral iron supplements may cause gastrointestinal discomfort. However, there are many new types of supplements becoming available on the market that may cause less discomfort. Taking an iron supplement with added vitamin c has also been shown to improve iron absorption. It is important to discuss iron supplementation with your doctor or dietitian to ensure you are taking the correct and most beneficial supplement for you. 

What Women Need To Know About Managing Iron Levels

As dietitians, we understand that it may be overwhelming when trying to figure out how to improve your iron intake. Try these tips:

  1. Ensure you are consuming an iron source at each meal. This could be something like an iron fortified cereal at breakfast, chickpeas and spinach added to your sandwich for lunch (extra points if you use wholegrain bread!) and including some tofu, chicken or red meat into your dinner. Nuts, seeds and dried fruit make great iron rich snacks!
  2. Avoid consuming dairy, tea or coffee at the same time as your main meals. For example, you may want to wait 30 minuets after breakfast to have your morning coffee. 
  3. Look at increasing your vitamin C intake by including lots of coloured fruit and vegetables with your meals. 
  4. Speak to your doctor and dietitian if you are experiencing ongoing heavy periods, to ensure the best possible plan is created to preserve your iron stores and avoid deficiency. 
  5. If necessary, discuss possible options for iron supplementation with your doctor or dietitian. 

Author: Melanie McGrice  – Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian.

Melanie McGrice is a highly respected Australian dietitian, passionate about working with women to improve nutrition and dietary issues. Melanie is also the director of Nutrition Plus,  a dietetic company which specialises in fertility, pregnancy and women’s health.