Your Personal Iron Store, what all mamas should know (and how to spend a snowy day out in London…)

I was trudging the streets of Regents Park, London through heaps of white snow – husband, babyjogger and 15 month old in tow. The traffic was going at snail’s pace and the pedestrians, mainly stoic professionals, trotted along in their smart leather shoes, careful not to slip. I must be the only person actually choosing to travel in to London for a health check up right now I thought. There had been trains cancelled and weather warnings but I felt sure this was going to be worth it. I was sure my doctor was wrong, and that I was very low in iron, and that I needed a top before I gave birth in two months time.

We were greeted in Harley Street by an Australian female doctor who was bright eyed and bushy tailed, and took all my details down quickly and efficiently, ushering me straight in to see the Asian Registrar in charge. He worked at all the top London hospitals and had set up The Iron Clinic with his peers, to help patients who could not get treated on the NHS. He looked at my readings and said that at 37 my ferritin iron store was definitely low and that I would benefit from an iron transfusion. All my symptoms pointed towards it. It would help me out if I lost a lot of blood when I gave birth, as I had done with my first birth. It would also set me up for breastfeeding and when my periods returned.

So I sat in the bright white therapy room that they rented, and after being on a drip for fifteen minutes, my iron store was restored. It wouldn’t kick in for a few weeks, so I still needed to grab a coffee as I trudged back to the car. But that was ok! My hunch had been right and I was so glad I had got a second opinion privately.

The other clients at the clinic were mainly athletes and nurses, both of whom need to be physically strong and both of whom know a lot about how the body works. I found that interesting. I was later told by my midwives that I had done the right thing.

A couple of months later I felt stronger. My birth went on to be complication free and despite moderate blood loss I had no symptoms of anemia. In fact I was up and about and eating lasagne an hour after my home water birth. I had been on quite a journey and found out so much I didn’t know about how important iron is so I wanted to share it with you…

Most women of childbearing age in the UK are deficient in their iron ferritin store. A low hb and diagnosis of anemia is the last stage in a cascade effect in the body when we do not have enough iron. Few of us in the UK consume enough iron in our diets and this is especially so if you tend to try to avoid red meat (meat contains heme iron which is the easiest to absorb).

During our childbearing years women need 18 mg of iron a day and that rockets to 27 mg during pregnancy. To put that into perspective that is the equivalent of 6 200g steaks a day! No wonder so many of us are deficient!

A low iron store can give symptoms very similar to anemia – tiredness, weak muscles, cramps, headaches, hair loss, all things we women tend to put up with and put down to pregnancy, hormones or our lifestyle.

There are lots of iron rich foods we can include in our diet. Leafy greens, oats, apricots, beans and lentils to name a few. I now have a cupboard at home full of these foods and make sure to include one or two in every meal. There are too many to list, but its a good idea to know about iron rich foods, find ones you like, and make sure you always have them on hand. They are better absorbed if you match them with foods high in vitamin c, or simply have a glass of orange juice with your meal. They are not absorbed so well with caffein, so its a good idea to have your coffee or tea at another time of day rather than meal times.

Meat contains heme iron which is absorbed more easily. Shellfish are very rich source of iron, so if you are not allergic (sadly I am) you can go ahead and have your fill. A steak every now and then is a good easily absorbed source of iron. And if you like it, liver is rich in iron as is liver pate.

I found out about an amazing way we can add more iron to every meal, by cooking in an iron skillet. In places in Malawai where they have a lot of malaria and anemia, they have experimented with cooking in iron skillets, and studies have proven that the villagers who use them regularly have a better result in treating anemia than those who do not. I have also found that they give food a lovely rich flavour and are a pleasure to cook with!

Another source of iron that is a very canny little number is molasses. You can buy a jar and 100 g will give a woman their whole days’ rda. I’m not suggesting you would eat that much of it, but you can easily see how adding a desert spoon to your bolognese sauce will really up the iron content! It also tastes sweet and yummy, and my eighteen month old little boy and my husband love it!

Basically, I have found out that if we are not actively trying to get enough iron in our diets, then we are probably not. And ironically if we are health conscious and trying not to eat too much meat, we need to be even more careful to include enough iron in our diets.

Going back to that snowy day in London, its a good idea to have your ferritin store checked every now and then and definitely during pregnancy. That way you can take iron supplements or even choose to have an infusion if you need it. And be aware you may have to go private to do so.

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