The Annual Test All Women Need – Preventing Iron-Deficiency Anemia with the Ferritin Test
Anemia is a well-known disease. It affects more women than men, and, with current dietary trends women are at risk more than ever for developing iron-deficiency anemia. Iron deficiency anemia begins when the stores of iron in the bone marrow, liver, and spleen become depleted. As the stores get low, the TIBC (total iron binding count) becomes elevated and anemia results.
Anemia develops slowly. Because of the gradual nature, it can be hard to recognize that something is wrong. Women are often told their tiredness and mental fog is due to being a mom with young children, or when they complain of heart palpitations or chest pressure they might be told it is caused by stress. Dizziness might be attributed to dehydration or low blood sugar, and shortness of breath might not be considered in concert with the other symptoms. Often, the only test run is the CBC, which among other things measures the hematocrit and hemoglobin. With iron deficiency anemia, however, the hematocrit and hemoglobin are the last to be affected. By the time these numbers are dropping, the body has been under a great deal of stress for some time.
Not having enough blood affects every organ in the body. If it goes untreated, it can lead to organ failure, including a heart attack and/or stroke. It is not a disease to be ignored and yet it is under-diagnosed and misunderstood by many medical professionals.
There are other causes of anemia, such as rapid blood loss, genetic factors, or more serious diseases like cancer, of which the treatments can cause anemia. But, iron deficiency anemia is a disease on the rise and it deserves more attention.
In traditional societies, iron rich foods have been an important part of childbearing women’s diets. Mussels, oysters, legumes and red meat, especially liver, are good sources of iron. Current diet trends toward more grains and less red meat have left women more susceptible to developing iron deficiency anemia. Red meat, in particular has perfect amounts of zinc, B12, and iron. Even just small amounts of red meat on a regular basis can protect against anemia.
But, the most important step toward preventing iron-deficiency anemia can be a simple blood test. Testing serum ferritin levels on a regular basis can give women and their health care providers the chance to head off anemia before it begins. Ferritin is the level of iron stores in the bone marrow, spleen or liver. Current laboratory reference ranges tend to be too low and many doctors do not realize that levels below 50 ng/mL can be the beginning of a trend toward iron deficiency. Levels between 70 and 100 are healthy numbers for childbearing women. With lower levels, taking an iron supplement on a daily basis, eating well, and testing the blood levels on a 3-6 month basis can be all a woman needs to ensure against anemia.
An excellent resource on iron-deficiency anemia is the National Anemia Action Council.