One in three women put up with exhaustion and fatigue for more than six months before seeking help to treat low iron, new research shows.
A national survey of 400 women aged 25-54 who had experienced low iron also found two in three women had experienced the effects of low iron for more than a year, with 27 per cent classified as long-term sufferers (5-10 years).
Iron deficiency is classified by the WHO as the world's most prevalent nutrient deficiency, affecting about one third of the world's population, with women at greatest risk.
What is iron and why is it so important?
Iron is an essential mineral required to produce red blood cells, which are necessary for a healthy immune system, mental function, muscle strength and energy. Iron is needed to make haemoglobin, found in red blood cells, which carries oxygen in the blood from the lungs to all of the body's cells. It is also necessary to store oxygen in muscle cells.
The body can't make iron, so you need to get it from food. As such, vegetarians and vegans are likely to be more susceptible to iron deficiency given they require almost twice the daily amount of iron, and iron in plant-based foods is more difficult for the body to absorb.
Common symptoms include tiredness, fatigue, dizziness, breathlessness and poor concentration and cognition.
Diagnosis and treatment
Iron deficiency can be diagnosed by your doctor through a simple blood test. Treatment options vary depending on test results and can include incorporating more iron-rich foods and foods to help absorption into your diet, therapeutic-dose oral iron supplements or, if required, an iron infusion.
Why do women put up with symptoms for so long?
According to the national survey, for Vifor Pharma, almost 40 per cent of respondents only discovered they were iron deficient incidentally through other procedures such as routine blood tests.
Jean Hailes gynaecologist Dr Elizabeth Farrell said it was common for women to ignore symptoms or attribute them to other lifestyle factors.
"They will typically say their tiredness is due to being busy and doing a lot of running around. The problem is tiredness is such a diffuse subject and can mean so many different things that people don't consider it a reason to investigate a potentially bigger problem. There is not enough awareness about just how important iron is and how central it is to wellbeing," Dr Farrell said.
Other key survey findings
• 75% of respondents describe iron deficiency as having a moderate to major impact on their daily lives, with 13% unable to live their life as fully as they want to;
• tiredness, fatigue, shortness of breath and malaise were the biggest trigger to seek information or advice (43%);
• 81% of women saw a GP when they suspected they had low iron;
• of the 95% who had a blood test, 88% were diagnosed with iron deficiency; and
• 28% experienced heavy periods.
A combination of exercising, working while also establishing her own business, and following a largely vegetarian diet proved to be the perfect health storm for Penny Walters, diagnosed with iron deficiency earlier this year.
A dietician she consulted for weight loss ordered blood tests, but it was her GP who identified the significance of the result.
"I was at my GP for something else, but she noticed I had bloods done recently and was really alarmed to discover my iron was so low it was essentially undetectable," she said.
The 47-year-old failed to attribute her lack of energy to low iron.
"There were many, many days where I was sitting at my desk with my head in my hands wondering how I would get through the day. I always put it down to a poor night's sleep or stress," she said.
After receiving treatment, the results were almost immediate.
"I had forgotten what it felt like to have energy and to be motivated again, which is particularly important when you are trying to get a new business off the ground," Ms Walters said.
"I am working with a personal trainer now and I feel like I am getting my fitness and strength back, and I can now run without feeling as if I am gagging.
"I didn't identify the symptoms correctly and it was only picked up incidentally, so I would say to anyone else that there is no harm in getting a blood test and having it confirmed either way, because it is so treatable and can make such a difference to your health."
And, after nine years as a pescatarian, Ms Walters has turned her back on a meat-free diet and now regularly incorporates white and red meat into her diet.
"Now it's about eating for my health. I have accepted I have had to return to eating meat, which is preferable to the alternative."
Are you iron deficient?
Check for warning signs by taking the symptom checker test at takeironseriously.com or speak with your doctor.