Iron Deficiency Anemia & Menstruation

woman with pain
A close-up of a woman with her hand on her stomach. (Image: LarsZahnerPhotography/iStock/Getty Images)

Iron deficiency anemia is a common problem among women of reproductive age and affects approximately 3 million women in the United States alone. However, it is under-diagnosed by health care professionals and many cases go untreated. If you have heavy bleeding during your menstrual cycle, you are at a higher risk of developing this condition. Although supplementation may be necessary in some circumstances, consult your physician before taking an iron supplement.

Causes

Anemia is a health condition caused by low levels of iron in the blood. Iron is essential for the function of hemoglobin protein, the main protein component of red blood cells which delivers oxygen to all tissues of the body. When iron levels are insufficient, cells throughout the body become deprived of oxygen. Anemia may be caused by many conditions including heavy blood loss during menstruation.

Risk Factors

If you experience heavy menstrual bleeding, your risk of developing anemia is elevated. Many women are unsure how to define heavy periods. The symptoms include bleeding that fills a tampon or pad every hour for several hours, bleeding that lasts longer than 7 days and periods that are accompanied by severe cramps or passing clots. Discuss these symptoms with your doctor. Sometimes they indicate uterine fibroids,which are non-cancerous growths in the uterus that cause bleeding and pelvic pain.

Symptoms

One reason iron deficiency is under-diagnosed is that many of the symptoms can be attributed to other conditions. Women with iron deficiency anemia experience general fatigue, weakness, difficulty concentrating, shortness of breath, headache and dizziness. Other signs may include heart palpitations, ice craving and feeling cold.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your health care provider will order a blood test to determine the amount of red blood cells and hemoglobin in your blood. You may receive a prescription for supplemental iron or your doctor may recommend dietary changes. Foods rich in iron include meat, poultry, seafood and shellfish, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds, dark molasses and green leafy vegetables. Some cereals, grains and breads are fortified with iron. Try to consume iron-rich foods alongside a source of vitamin C, such as citrus fruit or juice, since this enhances absorption. Dairy products, tea and coffee will decrease absorption of iron.

Recommendations

The Institute of Medicine recommends that women ages 19 to 50 get at least 18 milligrams of iron per day assuming that 75 percent of the iron is from heme sources like meat. Women who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet need double the amount of iron because non-heme iron is not readily absorbed. Foods containing vitamin C including citrus fruit, broccoli and green bell peppers will facilitate the absorption of non-heme iron according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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