Do you feel beyond tired—so tired that sleep doesn’t seem to make any difference? Perhaps an iron supplement is in order. Research suggests that women suffering from fatigue might benefit from iron supplements, even if they don’t have anemia, a condition characterized by low levels of red blood cells.
Fatigue is not the same as tiredness. Everyone feels tired now and then, but fatigue is characterized by an overwhelming lack of energy that is not relieved by sleep. It turns out that women who are chronically tired may have low iron levels—even if they don’t have full-blown anemia. What has been unclear—up until now—is whether iron supplementation can help fight fatigue in these non-anemic women.
Understanding Iron Deficiency
Severe iron deficiency can lead to anemia. Doctors typically test for iron deficiency by measuring blood levels of hemoglobin; however, this method has its shortcomings because hemoglobin levels don’t fall until the advanced stages of iron deficiency when it has developed into full-blown anemia.
There is another indicator of iron levels—ferritin. Ferritin is a marker of the body’s stored iron. Many doctors don’t test for it, but in the case of unexplained fatigue, it might be wise to measure ferritin. Low levels of ferritin will indicate an iron deficiency even if a woman is not anemic. In other words, even when hemoglobin levels are not low, there might be an iron deficiency if ferritin levels are low.
Fatigue and Iron Deficiency
To study the relationship between fatigue and iron deficiency, Swiss researchers randomly assigned 200 women with unexplained fatigue to take either 80 milligrams of iron per day or a placebo. All women in the study had low to borderline-low levels of ferritin.
Although both groups improved over a 12-week period, the women taking iron supplements experienced greater improvement. The women in the iron group experienced a 50 percent drop in fatigue, compared with a 29 percent drop in the placebo group. Based on these results, the researchers speculated that when a woman experiences persistent fatigue that cannot be explained by any health condition, low iron levels could be to blame.
Should You Take Iron?
While the results of this study are promising, it’s important to remember that iron supplements are no magic bullet. If you’re feeling chronically fatigued, it’s important to visit a doctor and rule out other possible causes of your fatigue, such as sleep disorders or depression. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to have your doctor check your ferritin levels. If you are deficient in iron, an iron supplement could be helpful. A doctor can recommend the proper dosage.
In general, women are advised to get a minimum of 18 milligrams and a maximum of 40 mg of iron per day. Women are more likely to have low levels of iron, especially if they are still menstruating. To prevent iron deficiency, consume a nutrient-dense diet with foods rich in iron, such as meats, poultry, dark leafy greens, and legumes. For optimal iron absorption, eat iron-rich foods with foods rich in vitamin C.
Vaucher P, Druais PL, Waldvogel S, Favrat B. Effect of iron supplementation on fatigue in nonanemic menstruating women with low ferritin: a randomized controlled trial. Canadian Medical Association Journal. Published early online July 9, 2012. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.11