Just "can't" today? Make sure your winter blahs aren't actually an iron deficiency

Feeling low on energy? Irritable? Looking pale? It could just be winter...or you could be low on iron.
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Feeling low on energy? Irritable? Looking pale? It could just be winter -- or you could be low on iron.

Iron deficiency affects around 11 per cent of adult women and 1 per cent of men, according to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey out of the United States, but the vague symptoms are easily written off as being due to the "winter blues." And while feeling tired doesn't necessarily mean you have an iron deficiency, if you do and it's left untreated, there can be serious health consequences.

To understand more about iron deficiency and what you can do to prevent it, we speak with Dr. Dee Mangin, a professor of family medicine and the David Braley and Nancy Gordon Chair in Family Medicine at McMaster University, and to registered dietitians Jess Pirnak and Madonna Achkar.

What is iron and why do we need it?

"Iron is a mineral our bodies absorb by eating foods with iron", said Dr. Dee Mangin. Iron is needed to form the red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout our bodies. If iron levels are too low, people may develop anemia, a red blood cell deficiency.

How does someone develop an iron deficiency?

Mangin points to three causes: a diet low in iron, blood loss from menstruation or other causes — such as bleeding from the bowel, which could be a symptom of bowel cancer — or having a condition that makes it hard for your body to absorb iron, such as undiagnosed celiac disease.

What are symptoms of iron deficiency?

Fatigue, lightheadedness, dizziness, headaches, irritability, pale skin, a general feeling of weakness, and breathlessness when exercising. If you have these symptoms, tell your doctor and get your blood tested.

Who is at risk of being iron deficient?

Short answer: women and vegetarians.

Around 11 per cent of women between the ages of 16 to 49 have iron deficiency, according to a U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted in the late 1980s and 1990s. Women are more susceptible because menstruation depletes the body's iron stores, said Mangin.

Vegetarians may be at greater risk of developing an iron deficiency because they don't consume red meat, which has high levels of iron easily absorbed by the body, said Mangin. While there are sources of iron other than meat, "the body just sucks out the iron from red meat much more easily than it does from vegetables," said Mangin.

How can people increase their iron intake?

"If the iron deficiency is mild to moderate, a doctor may prescribe iron supplement tablets", said Mangin. "If a patient still isn't able to absorb iron, an intravenous iron infusion may be necessary", she said.

But in mild cases, the best treatment is a change in diet.

"Good sources of iron that come from animals include fish, red meat, duck, eggs and seafood such as octopus and oysters", said registered dietitian Madonna Achkar. Good plant-based sources of iron include lentils, beans, tofu, spinach, tomatoes, asparagus, dried apricots, edamame, pumpkin seeds and nuts.

"The body best absorbs iron from plant-based foods when vitamin C is also consumed", said registered dietitian Jess Pirnak. "Bell peppers, broccoli and asparagus, along with citrus fruits, are all good sources of vitamin C", she said.

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto-based journalist who writes about relationships, health, technology and social trends. You can find her on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.