Exhaustion is almost guaranteed at some stage of parenthood. From the broken nights of babyhood, through the tiring days of toddlerdom and on into later years of parenting, it can seem as though exhaustion is inevitable.
But it’s possible that something else is contributing to that shattered feeling: iron deficiency.
It is estimated that nearly 8 million women in the U.S. could be low in iron, with over 3 million of them suffering from iron-deficiency anemia.
Why iron is important
Iron is used by the body to make hemoglobin, the iron-rich protein that transports oxygen from the lungs around the body. Women need more iron than men because of blood loss during menstruation. Pregnant women also use more iron, both for the developing fetus and as their own volume of blood increases.
When insufficient iron is available, not enough healthy red blood cells can be made, meaning less oxygen is available to muscles. This can result in a range of symptoms, including a tired feeling. Iron-deficient anemia can develop if low iron levels persist, and if left untreated anemia can be damaging to organs, including the heart, which has to work harder to transport oxygen around the body.
It's easy to put these symptoms down to general tiredness, but if they persist, it's important to check with your physician.
Other symptoms of iron deficiency
As well as a feeling of exhaustion, iron deficiency can cause irritability, difficulty concentrating, tiredness when exercising and headaches, all of which many parents experience from time to time. It's easy to put these symptoms down to general tiredness, but if they persist, it's important to check with your physician that your iron levels are at a healthy level. This can be done by a simple blood test.
Other symptoms of iron deficiency include shortness of breath, dizziness, susceptibility to infections, irregular heartbeat, pale skin and gums and muscle weakness. Some of these can indicate quite advanced anemia and should not be ignored.
Causes of iron deficiency
Besides menstruation and pregnancy, another main cause of iron deficiency for women is simply not eating enough iron-rich foods. It can be hard to feed yourself healthily all the time when children are small and life is hectic. To help, later we will look at iron-filled foods that can easily be incorporated into the busiest schedule.
Iron deficiency can also be a symptom of illness or internal blood loss, which is why it is essential that a proper diagnosis is obtained from a qualified medical practitioner.
Finally, endurance athletes and those training hard can be at risk of low hemoglobin levels.
How much iron do women need?
Women need 18 mg of iron per day during the years that they are menstruating. This rises to 27 mg during pregnancy.
Iron is also dangerous at high levels, and the maximum daily intake should not exceed 45 mg. In any event, supplements should only be taken under the supervision of a medical practitioner.
How to remedy iron deficiency
Fortunately, once iron deficiency has been diagnosed, it's relatively easy to treat. Depending on your iron levels, you may be prescribed iron tablets.
Alongside this and even after you're done with supplements, it's important to incorporate iron-rich foods into the diet. Fortunately, there are plenty of simple, everyday choices that will help. If you get to know which foods contain plenty of iron, you can make a habit of picking them over lower iron options.
For example, beef contains 2.7 to 3.6 mg of iron per 100 g (all measurements below will be based on 100g), while chicken and pork offer only around a third of that. Offal has particularly high iron levels, with liver containing between 6 mg and 17 mg of iron, while kidneys have 4 mg.
There are plenty of non-meat choices as well, like kidney beans and garbanzo beans (2 mg) and eggs. Dark green leaves, such as spinach, kale and broccoli are the best vegetables to opt for, along with canned tomatoes.
For quick-iron rich snacks, nuts and seeds are particularly good. Think sesame seeds (10 mg), sunflower seeds, cashews, almonds and peanut butter. Or if you have a sweet tooth, try figs, prunes, apricots and dark chocolate with at least 60 percent cocoa solids.
Editor's note: This post is not intended to provide medical care. Talk to your doctor for specific advice, diagnoses and treatment.