Body Experts Health & Wellbeing

The Facts On Anaemia: Ask The Body Experts

Having extra heavy, or super-long periods can only be described as a drain – not only on your tampon stash, but on your body’s iron levels too. In a nutshell, next-level bleeding month-in, month-out, can potentially make you anaemic.

Today, we learn all about anaemia from the experts, and how to detect when your body’s in need of an iron boost.

What exactly is anaemia?

Anaemia is the result of either not having enough healthy red blood cells to take oxygen around the body, or having an abnormally low amount of haemoglobin in each red blood cell. A lack of vitamin vitamin B12 or folate can cause anaemia, but the most common form is called iron-deficiency anaemia.

“Iron is needed to make haemoglobin, which is a protein that transports oxygen around the body in the bloodstream. Low iron levels result in iron-deficiency anaemia, which can be caused by lack of iron in the diet or blood loss during menstruation, or from the gastrointestinal tract – which can be caused by ulcers or chrons disease,” explains Dr Helen Wallace, GP and author of The Food Medic For Life.   

How do I know if I’m anaemic?

Dr Wallace says that typical symptoms will include, “constant fatigue, shortness of breath, pale skin or dark circles around the eyes, headache, dizziness or feeling light-headed, weakness and poor appetite.”

If you suspect that you’re anaemic, your doctor can do a blood test to check the iron levels in your body.

Why is iron so important?

“If iron stores are low, normal haemoglobin production slows downs. This means the transport of oxygen around the body decreases, resulting in symptoms such as fatigue and tiredness. Iron also contributes to the normal function of the immune system,” says nutritionist, Sally Wisbey.

Iron is also the only mineral in which a woman’s requirement is greater than a man’s, due to us experiencing blood loss during our periods, or because of pregnancy. According to the NHS, the ‘normal’ amount of blood you lose during a period ranges from 30 to 40ml (about five to six teaspoons). If you’re experiencing heavy menstrual bleeding, you’ll be losing 60ml or more in each cycle – and that’s called menorrhagia. A good indication that your flow is heavy is if you have to change your tampon or pad more than every two hours, you use double protection to prevent leaks, or you’re regularly flooding through your underwear onto your clothes and bedding.

Women who exercise should also keep an eye on their iron levels. “Runners especially need to ensure appropriate iron intake because of ‘foot strike’ hemolysis – the repeated pounding of the feet on a hard surface which can damage red blood cells, and iron loss through sweating and urine,” Sally explains.

So iron intake is crucial?

Yes. Iron is one of the most difficult minerals for the body to absorb and since our bodies can’t produce iron itself, it’s important to eat an iron-rich diet to make sure we get sufficient amounts.

Dr Wallace advises that the best sources of iron come from red meat, fish and eggs. Iron is also abundant in plant foods such as grains, legumes, nuts and seeds but the body finds it slightly more difficult to absorb these sources.

Sally adds: “It's worth noting though that only up to 20% of the iron in plant-based foods can be absorbed by our stomach and many foods that are rich in iron are also rich in substances that inhibit the absorption of iron, such as phytates, polyphenols, tannins, calcium or oxalic acid.”  Avoiding tea and coffee with meals, or drinking a glass of Vitamin C loaded orange juice as you eat, can help with the absorption of iron from food.

What else will help?

If you are well rested and eat a healthy diet but still feel tired and lethargic, an over-the-counter liquid iron supplement, such as Spatone, can help. You may be prescribed stronger iron tablets from your GP if a blood test shows your red blood cell count is low, these will work to replace the iron that's missing from your body. To help with absorption, iron supplements should always be taken on an empty stomach or at least 45 minutes before or after food.