During your childbearing years, your daily iron intake needs are more than twice that of a man's. That's because you lose blood every month during menstruation. If you're like most women, you may have a hard time meeting your daily iron needs and wonder what are normal iron levels are.
The Many Functions of Iron
Iron is an essential mineral, which means your body can't make it on its own and you must get it from outside sources. Your body uses iron to perform many important functions, but you may know it best for the role it plays in your blood. Without iron, your body wouldn't be able to make hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in your blood, or myoglobin, which carries oxygen to your muscles.
While iron is essential for carrying oxygen to all the cells, tissues and organs in your body, that's not its only job. Iron is also necessary for normal growth and development, proper functioning of your cells, formation of connective tissue and synthesizing certain hormones.
Your Iron Needs
To maintain normal iron levels, it's important that you know how much iron you need each day. As an essential nutrient, it must come from either the food you eat or from a supplement. Daily iron needs for women vary depending on your age; your needs also change during pregnancy and lactation.
- Age 14 to 18: 15 milligrams
- Age 19 to 50: 18 milligrams
- Age 50 and older: 8 milligrams
- Pregnancy: 27 milligrams
- Lactating age 14 to 18: 10 milligrams
- Lactating age 19 to 50: 9 milligrams
By comparison, adult men of all ages only need 8 milligrams of iron each day.
According to the Office of Dietary Supplements, premenopausal and pregnant women, as well as teen girls, have the hardest time meeting their daily iron needs. Additionally, some women are at greater risk of developing iron-deficiency anemia due to health issues, such as menorrhagia, which is an abnormally heavy menstrual flow.
Read more: Iron Deficiency Anemia and Menstruation
Normal Iron Levels for Women
If you have concerns about about whether you have normal iron levels, you should talk to your doctor about getting an iron blood test.
- Normal iron levels for women: 10 to 30 micromoles per liter
- Low iron levels for women: less than 10 micromoles per liter
However, while checking the amount of iron in your blood is a good start, it may not tell the entire story of your iron status.
Testing for Iron-Deficiency Anemia
To determine if you have iron-deficiency anemia, your doctor may consider various blood tests to look at specific markers, including testing your complete blood count, hemoglobin, mean corpuscular volume (MCV) and ferritin. A complete blood count gives a general assessment of your overall health.
Measuring your hemoglobin assesses your overall blood count and helps your doctor determine if you're anemic.
- Normal hemoglobin for women: 12 to 15 grams per deciliter
For the record, your hemoglobin may be at anemia levels, but it may not necessarily mean you have iron-deficiency anemia. Low intake of vitamin B12 or folate can also lead to anemia. Measuring your MCV gives more insight into the type of anemia as it measures the average size of your blood cells. Smaller blood cells or a small MCV is a potential sign that you are iron deficient.
Ferritin is the storage form of iron. You can have normal blood iron levels, but low ferritin levels, which may be an indicator of anemia.
You may be diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia if either your blood iron levels are low or your ferritin levels are low.
Signs of Anemia
Unfortunately, during the early stages of iron-deficiency anemia, you may not notice the subtle symptoms your body is sending that indicate you're not getting enough iron. But as your deficiency worsens, so do your symptoms.
Symptoms to look out for that may indicate low iron levels include:
- Low energy levels
- Shortness of breath
You may also notice that your nails are brittle or spoon-shaped. Iron-deficiency anemia can also cause strange food cravings, such as the desire to eat starch or clay, which is referred to as pica.
Iron Deficiency Treatment
You can improve your anemia levels with food or nutritional supplements. Iron from food is available in two forms: heme iron and nonheme iron. Heme iron is more bioavailable, which means it's easier for your body to absorb, than nonheme iron.
- Sources of heme iron: meat, poultry and seafood
- Sources of nonheme iron: beans, whole grains, lentils, tofu and raisins
You can improve your absorption of iron from either the heme or nonheme source by combining it with foods rich in vitamin C, such as tomatoes, strawberries, potatoes, oranges and bell peppers.
Iron deficiency treatment suggested meal plan:
- Breakfast: Oatmeal topped with raisins and made with plant-milk fortified with iron
- Lunch: Grilled chicken salad topped with sliced strawberries, garbanzo beans and walnuts
- Dinner: Lentil soup with a tomato salad
- Snack: Hummus with red and green bell pepper slices
Most multivitamins specific for women contain 18 milligrams of iron and are a good choice if you're struggling to meet your daily needs from food alone. You can also take iron as an individual supplement, but talk to your doctor about the most appropriate dose. Consuming high doses of iron in supplement form may cause side effects such as nausea or constipation.
If you take a calcium supplement, you should take your iron and calcium at different times. Calcium can interfere with iron absorption, and you may not get all that you need.
Read more: Snack Foods High in Iron
Why Your Anemia Levels Matter
Iron-deficiency anemia is the most common form of anemia. If it goes undiagnosed or untreated, your anemia may lead to other health issues, such as depression, change in heart function or an increase in your risk of infections. If you already have an underlying health issue, your iron-deficiency anemia may impair your treatment or worsen your condition.
Benefits of Boosting Iron Levels
No doubt, you'll feel a whole heck of a lot better when you have normal iron levels, but you may also experience additional benefits. According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Nutrition on iron-deficient women, iron supplementation improved exercise endurance and performance. Boosting your iron levels may also lift your libido, according to a 2018 study published in PLoS One.
- Office of Dietary Supplements: Iron
- MedlinePlus: Iron
- NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: Iron-Deficiency Anemia
- MedlinePlus: Mean Corpuscular Volume
- MayoClinic: Iron-Deficiency Anemia
- Expert Review of Hematology: Impact and Management of Iron Deficiency Anemia in Women's Health
- The Journal of Nutrition: Increasing Iron Status through Dietary Supplementation in Iron-Depleted, Sedentary Women Increases Endurance Performance at Both Near-Maximal and Submaximal Exercise Intensities
- PLoS One: The Relationship Between Iron-Deficiency Anemia and Sexual Function and Satisfaction Among Reproductive-Aged Iranian Women
- NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: Blood Tests: What Do Blood Tests Show?
- NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: Iron-Deficiency: Diagnosis: Blood Tests