Are you feeling physically depleted and extremely fatigued?
Before you quickly chalk it up to a “normal” part of new motherhood, there could be something else contributing to your fatigue besides late-night feedings and diaper duty. Low ferritin levels.
Like so much of pregnancy, childbirth and post-partum life, you don’t know what you don’t know until you find yourself in the midst of it. And when you encounter an issue and seek answers to solve it, you learn a whole lot about something that you never previously knew even existed. That’s what it was like for me and ferritin.
What is ferritin?
Ferritin is a protein that stores iron and lives in your body’s cells. When it’s time to make more red blood cells, a signal is sent to your body’s cells to release ferritin. Ferritin binds with the protein transferrin—a “taxi” that gets iron to where red blood cells are being made. Your liver and immune system cells typically have the largest concentrations of ferritin in your body. While it’s very important for you to have enough iron in your body, you also must have enough iron stored in reserve to help your body function optimally.
Iron is critical for your body to maintain energy levels and thyroid function. It’s actually involved in many body processes, so symptoms of low iron can present in several ways. Many mums experience an iron deficiency that often goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed as either depression or thyroid problems when they are in their reproductive years. Pregnancy and breastfeeding deplete iron levels, as does a heavy menstrual flow.
Anemia and iron deficiency aren’t the same
You can experience symptoms and be iron deficient even if you are not anemic. Contrary to what many people believe, anemia and iron deficiency aren’t the same. Anemia means you lack hemoglobin, a protein responsible for transporting oxygen in the blood. Anemia has many of the same symptoms of iron deficiency. Low iron can cause anemia, but so can inflammation, infection and blood loss. But, you can be iron deficient and not have anemia. Many doctors check for anemia and not low iron, therefore many cases of iron deficiency never get diagnosed properly.
Symptoms of low iron and ferritin levels
If you are struggling with leg pains, irritability, shortness of breath, unexplained fatigue or weakness, dizziness, chronic headaches or ringing in your ears, it could be a sign that you have low ferritin levels. Other symptoms include:
- Increased hair loss or lack of hair growth; brittle nails
- Inability to tolerate exercise
- Decreased immune function
- GI discomfort including bloating, gas, low stomach acid
Be sure to consult with your healthcare provider and push to have a ferritin test, not just a complete blood count (CBC) test. A CBC test less expensive, but it only looks at hemoglobin levels, not ferritin levels. So, you might still be iron deficient even if the CBC test comes back normal. Basically, the more ferritin in your blood, the more iron your body has stored.
Since high levels of ferritin can also cause unpleasant symptoms and excessive iron increases chances of heart or liver disease and Alzheimer’s risk, it’s imperative for you to get a ferritin test before assuming that iron deficiency is the root of your problem. It’s never advised for you to take iron supplements without knowing for sure that you’re iron deficient. It’s possible that your doctor will request you fast for 12 hours before the test for the most accurate results especially if the blood test will assess more than ferritin levels. All it takes is a quick blood draw from your arm that’s sent to the lab to be analyzed. The normal range for women, according to the Mayo Clinic, is 20-200 nanograms per milliliter.
Iron deficiency treatment
Once you confirm that you are iron deficient, it’s time to get your iron levels up! The good news is that all the symptoms for iron deficiency can be reversed fairly quickly with iron supplementation. In addition to following your doctor’s orders regarding proper supplementation, consider this:
- While ferrous sulfate is the most commonly prescribed form of iron, it’s not the best-absorbed form and can cause uncomfortable side effects such as stomach pains, constipation, heartburn and even vomiting.
- Iron from animal sources, known as heme iron, are up to 33% more absorbable than non-heme iron and include red meat, liver and egg yolks.
- Consider using cast iron cookware to increase iron intake.
- Choose a high-iron diet that includes asparagus, spinach, romaine lettuce, chard, leeks, mustard greens and soybeans.
- Spices such as black pepper, thyme, cumin and turmeric also help increase iron levels. Vitamin C helps you increase the absorption of plant-based iron.
Be sure to make yourself and your health a priority always but especially when you have recently had a baby. Trust your gut. And if you’re sick and tired of being so tired, it could be your ferritin level to blame. Make an appointment to get your iron levels checked.