Sarah, a Boston College junior, began feeling chronically exhausted during her junior year of high school.
“My mom had to force me out of bed in the morning,” she said. “I would spend the entire morning eating sugar and drinking green tea, and by the time I got home around 2:30, I would eat another meal and sleep until dinner time. I had absolutely no energy, and had to force myself to do my homework. I was irritable, most likely due to my lack of sleep and energy deficiency. My doctor heard about my tiredness, saw the pallor in my face, noticed the dark rings under my eyes, and saw my chronically chapped skin, so he sent me to get blood tests done.”
Sarah’s doctor discovered that she had Iron Deficiency Anemia, also called IDA, which is a condition where a person has inadequate amounts of iron in their body. Iron is an essential component in hemoglobin, the oxygen carrying pigment in the blood. It is also a part of myoglobin, a component that helps the muscle cells store oxygen. Iron deficient people tire easily because their bodies cannot effectively synthesize fuel and are therefore starved for oxygen. About 20% of women, 50% of pregnant women and 3% of men are iron deficient.
Because so many young women are affected by IDA, Paula Martin, a registered dietitian who provides medical nutrition therapy at Carnegie Mellon, and Dr. Traci Brooks, the director of Adolescent Medicine Services at the Cambridge Health Alliance, have chimed in to give collegiettes some important information about how to identify and prevent Iron Deficiency Anemia.
What Causes Iron Deficiency Anemia?
According to Dr. Brooks, IDA can be caused by many different factors. Genetic disorders like sickle cell or Thalassemia, and chronic illnesses like kidney disease can make it difficult for the body to absorb iron. A collegiette’s diet can cause Iron Deficiency Anemia as well.
“Lots of iron is contained in red meat, so vegans and vegetarians are much more likely to be anemic,” said Dr. Brooks. “I always recommend a multivitamin with iron for all of my vegetarian patients. The college lifestyle tends to be associated with somewhat poorer eating habits as well, which can lead to a lack of iron in the system.”
Martin agrees that collegiettes’ diets can lead to IDA. “Anemia can result from poor dietary iron intake. This can be from a vegetarian diet, eating a high amount of processed snack foods like potato chips, candy or fast food, or skipping meals.”
Inadequate calorie intake can cause anemia as well. Women who reduce their daily calories in order to lose weight tend to have very low iron. Extremely heavy periods can also lead to anemia because of the extensive blood loss they cause.
The Symptoms of IDA
Sarah’s symptoms are common for a college-aged woman with Iron Deficiency Anemia. If you have IDA, you may experience:
- A decreased ability to concentrate
- Sensitivity to the cold
- A decreased resistance to illness
- Cravings for brittle foods like ice chips.
Caroline, a junior at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, experiences many of these symptoms daily if she doesn’t take iron supplements.
“I'm anemic and have suffered from iron deficiency ever since I was a teenager,” she said. “When you don't have enough oxygen pumping through your veins, you become really tired. I can't give blood because of this and I take Iron pills to help boost my iron levels every day. I realized I was anemic one summer when I was constantly tired and needed to nap a lot in order to stay up at night. I also noticed that when I was running or working out, I was yawning a lot. My doctor told me that this can happen when you aren't getting enough oxygen in your brain.”
Dr. Brooks notes that it can be particularly difficult for college women to identify the symptoms of anemia. “Women might feel fatigued and run down, but they usually attribute that to the lifestyle choices that they have made that tend to accompany college life, like staying up late, alcohol consumption and poor eating habits.”
What to Do if You Have these Symptoms
If you’re feeling some of the symptoms from the list above, you should get your iron level checked. This is usually done through a routine blood test which can be conducted by your primary health care provider or your university’s office of health services.
Dr. Brooks encourages most of her female patients to take a multivitamin with iron. Some women who are diagnosed with IDA may need an additional iron supplement, but you should always consult with your doctor on the dosage of that extra iron, because too much iron can also cause negative side effects such as constipation, nausea and vomiting.
Depending on the severity of the iron deficiency and the factors that led to that deficiency, doctors may also recommend changes in diet and lifestyle such as getting more exercise and concentrating on eating in a healthier way.
Martin recommends that collegiettes make an effort to eat a balanced diet that contains plants, grains, fruits, vegetables and meat, especially if you are already at risk for iron deficiency anemia. She also notes that women should eat three full meals a day. “This will increase your chances for getting both iron foods and foods that promote iron absorption like fruits and vegetables.”
Some iron-rich foods to add to your diet include red meat proteins, spinach, beans, nuts, dried fruits, egg yolks and grain-based cereals like oatmeal or Cream of Wheat. Vitamin C-rich foods or juices can also help to enhance the absorption of that iron into your system.
Martin notes that coffee and tea (hot or cold, decaf or regular) can also interfere with iron absorption. “Consider having it one hour before or after meals, not with meals,” she says. Once the caffeine has moved through your system, you will be better able to absorb iron.
Martin hopes that women will remember to maintain a healthy weight. Losing weight unnecessarily can drastically lower the iron levels in your body, but keeping yourself at a normal weight while eating healthy will make you feel energized!
The Bottom Line
If you’re feeling excessively fatigued, it may be worth it to head to the doctor for a routine blood test. Because approximately 20% of women are iron deficient, it is likely that you may need to up your iron intake! Thankfully, Iron Deficiency Anemia is easy to solve by changing your diet and taking iron supplements or multivitamins.