Iron & Female Fertility
Iron is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide - estimated that 30% of adults and children are clinically deficient. That's huge! Women are at a higher risk during their childbearing years due to the loss of blood and iron each month via menstruation.
We often talk about the need for iron DURING pregnancy - but low levels can also impact fertility and the ability to conceive.
What does iron do?
Iron is needed for the transport of oxygen to various organs and tissues via our red blood cells. If we don't have enough, we'll have general symptoms of fatigue and "foggy brain" - but even before that a deficiency can be impacting our ovaries and eggs. If not enough oxygenated red blood cells are able to make it to the ovary, ovulation can be blocked and/or the eggs that are produced are poor quality. (Like I mentioned this blog post here, there is a lot more than your age when it comes to egg quality)
There have been several studies that show correlations between low iron levels in your blood, or dietary iron intakes and higher rates of infertility. So it's definitely worth checking out and paying attention to prior to TTC, or if you have been struggling for a while.
Who's at high risk of iron deficiency?
Women with heavy periods, as more blood loss = more iron loss. This is yet another reason why women with symptoms of Estrogen Dominance - Endometriosis, fibroids, or just generally heavy painful periods - may have issues with conceiving
Those who are very physically active. The more exercise you engage in, the more your muscles will demand oxygen from those iron-carrying red blood cells
Vegetarians - as you'll see below, there's a big difference in iron absorption in meat based v. plant based sources
Mamas who have recently had a baby - pregnancy and birth demands quite a bit of iron and it can take a while to get back up to baseline
And of course anyone who has been told their iron was low in the past - you might still be low!
What to do?
First focus on iron rich foods - especially red/ dark meat and organ meat like liver. Plant based sources like leafy greens and beans can be an okay source, but in my clinical experience, I find that only the meat based foods and supplements will bring up iron when it is truly low.
Get your iron checked, and if it is low, consider a supplement. While the typically prescribed Iron Sulfate is terribly absorbed and causes really bad side effects, my preferred Solgar Gentle Iron is better absorbed and I've yet to receive a complaint on GI side effects. I don't recommend supplementing without labs to verify low levels, however. The default lab for iron deficiency is a CBC/ hemoglobin, but that's not quite enough info here. Request a full iron workup, including FERRITIN, which is the stored form of iron and gives a lot more info. I've seen TONS of women have normal hemoglobin levels, but their stored ferritin form is below normal or at the low end of the range (you want this above 40 or 50). This will absolutely affect fertility so you want to get the full spectrum of information if you suspect an issue.
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