Kathy, a 31-year-old mother of two preschool children, felt tired all the time. She wondered if something was wrong with her. She started swimming three times a week, but only felt worse. At first, her doctor told her that her fatigue was inevitable with two young kids. At her insistence, her doctor finally did blood tests, and found her to be anemic due to low iron levels in her blood. She began to pay special attention to the sources of iron in her diet, and took iron supplements for six months. Within three weeks, she felt much better, and within six weeks her energy level had returned to what it had been before the two pregnancies. She was astonished at the difference that iron had made in her life.
This is not an unusual story. In fact, an estimated one in three women are anemic due to iron deficiency.
Iron is the real workhorse of your body. It transports oxygen from your lungs to each and every cell of your body. Iron is one element your body cannot make on its own. All the iron you need has to be ingested through food or supplements.
Iron is used to make the hemoglobin molecule, which is the main constituent of red blood cells. Hemoglobin is composed of an iron containing compound (heme), which gives red blood cells their colour; and a protein (globin). Three hundred million hemoglobin molecules make up every red blood cell, and are incessantly at work picking up oxygen from your lungs and carrying it to all the tissues and organs of your body.
In spite of the tremendous importance of iron to your sense of well-being, you don't die from a lack of iron. Even with only 20 percent of your normal hemoglobin, you can still walk, although you may be literally dragging yourself around due to lack of oxygen in your tissues.
How Iron Is Taken Into The Body And Stored
Of the iron that you take in through food, only five to ten percent is absorbed. This iron is absorbed in the upper part of your small intestine. If you are low in iron, the percentage of iron absorbed goes up. Iron is relatively difficult to absorb, because your body protects itself from the harmful effects of absorbing too much iron.
After the iron is absorbed, it is bound to a protein in your blood, and transported to your bone marrow to be used in making red blood cells. Your body conserves iron carefully and reuses most of the iron from the breakdown of red blood cells to make new ones. Since the life of a red blood cell is about 120 days, two hundred thousand million new red blood cells have to be made every day.
A reserve of iron is stored in your bone marrow, liver and spleen. This stored iron is like a spare tire. It functions as an emergency reservoir for when you need extra iron.
Symptoms Of Iron Deficiency Or Anemia
If you have too little iron in your body and your iron reserves are used up, you can develop anemia or "poor blood". The red blood cells become thin and pale and poorly filled with hemoglobin. The number of red blood cells in your blood goes down. The hemoglobin, which normally makes up between 120 and 160 grams per 1,000 cc of blood also decreases.
Symptoms of iron deficiency can affect every body system. However, they usually develop slowly over time and may be hard to pinpoint. The most common symptoms you might experience are fatigue, weakness, drowsiness, palpitations and light-headedness.
Other symptoms include depression and irritability, headache, ringing in the ears, black spots before the eyes, shortness of breath, chest pain, rapid heart rate, swelling of the ankles, muscle weakness, numbness and tingling in the hands or feet, increased sensitivity to cold, and decreased tolerance to exercise.
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