There are a lot of reasons you might be feeling tired right now: an extra busy workday, a bad night’s sleep, or staying up too late binge-watching your favorite show. (Sound familiar?)
Occasional low energy is normal, but if you find yourself constantly feeling fatigued, you may have an iron deficiency—and if you’re female, it’s even more likely. The good news is, you don’t have to simply accept being tired all the time.
As a naturopathic doctor and the Medical Director of supplement brand MegaFood, Dr. Erin Stokes is deeply knowledgeable about how to spot and fix nutrient deficiencies, and she’s especially focused on the importance of iron. “A lot of women just accept that fatigue is part of life,” she says. “It can be such a game changer when women realize they are iron deficient and then address that need.”
Iron deficiency is the most common form of nutrient deficiency in the world, per the World Health Organization; according to Dr. Stokes, one in 10 women in the United States is at risk of being iron deficient. She is a firm believer in maintaining healthy iron levels to support optimal quality of life. “This is a common nutrient deficiency that’s impacting a lot of women’s day-to-day lives and keeping them from being the people they’re capable of being.”
Here’s what you need to know about iron deficiency in women, including the health benefits of iron, who’s most at risk of deficiency, signs of iron deficiency, iron-rich foods, and the best iron supplement for women.
Iron is a mineral that does a lot of jobs in the human body, but one of its most important is in the makeup of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells. “Without getting into a chemistry lesson, hemoglobin is responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the entire body,” Dr. Stokes says. “If we don’t have enough iron, we’re going to have low energy, because we’re not getting oxygen delivery throughout the body.” Iron is also important for regulating body temperature and healthy brain function.
“As a naturopathic doctor, I’m always thinking holistically,” Dr. Stokes states. “I like to look at the whole picture of who somebody is.” While anyone can have an iron deficiency, certain factors increase risk.
“When women menstruate, they lose iron on a monthly basis,” Dr. Stokes says, adding that how much iron is lost can vary widely depending on the nature of a woman’s period. Pregnancy is also a risk factor for iron deficiency, as a pregnant woman’s iron needs increase as the pregnancy progresses. Fortunately, iron deficiency in pregnant women is less likely to go undiagnosed since their bloodwork is typically closely monitored by their doctor.
Other groups that are at heightened risk of iron deficiency, Dr. Stokes says, include athletes and those who follow limited diets (primarily vegans and vegetarians), since many iron-rich foods are animal based.
“Iron deficiency is one that people often don’t realize they have,” Dr. Stokes says. That’s partly because the signs aren’t unique to low iron levels. Common symptoms of an iron deficiency include:
Another reason iron deficiency can be elusive is because it may not show up on a standard blood test. Dr. Stokes advises talking to your doctor about testing your ferritin, which is a protein in red blood cells that stores iron. “Sometimes a doctor might just look at your CBC [complete blood count] or hemoglobin and hematocrit, but ferritin is how you really find iron deficiency,” she explains. “Ferritin is a standard blood test that any medical doctor can order.” (It’s a good reminder to always talk to your doctor before making any changes to your health regimen.)
Like many naturopathic practitioners, Dr. Stokes takes a food-first approach to wellbeing. “A supplement is intended to do exactly what its name implies,” she says. “It’s a supplement to your diet.”
Dr. Stokes would typically recommend a person with low iron both consider adding an iron supplement and ensure they’re eating enough iron-rich foods. Iron food sources are divided into heme iron, which is found in animal-based foods, and non-heme iron, which comes from plant-based foods.
Heme iron foods include:
Non-heme iron foods include:
“In general, heme iron is a little more easily absorbed than non-heme iron,” Dr. Stokes says. “It’s especially important to be conscientious about incorporating iron-rich foods if you’re on a vegetarian diet.” One way to maximize the absorption of non-heme iron is by combining it with vitamin C, which Dr. Stokes calls “a good teammate for iron.” Think: a green smoothie with spinach, strawberries, and a squeeze of lemon juice for a one-two punch of non-heme iron and vitamin C.
Not only is iron deficiency common, but the typical treatment has some drawbacks. “Iron supplements are notorious for causing G.I. side effects” like stomach pain, constipation, and nausea, Dr. Stokes says. “It’s a no-win: either you’re going to feel fatigued and low-energy [because of iron deficiency], or have to deal with the side effects [of iron supplements].”
Obviously, a supplement that you don’t take won’t work, which is why MegaFood set out to create an iron supplement people would stick with. The brand’s Blood Builder is backed by an eight-week clinical trial that showed improvements in iron levels without common G.I. side effects.* “Even before I worked with [the brand] I was recommending Blood Builder at my practice,” Dr. Stokes says, adding that she saw the supplement practically go viral among women she knew and treated.
While Blood Builder offers more than 100% of the daily value of iron, at 26 milligrams, that’s less than some other iron supplements on the market. But as Dr. Stokes explains, the number of milligrams “doesn’t necessarily translate to what is going to be absorbed by the body. More is not always better.” Blood Builder is formulated with a gentle, effective form of iron called fermented iron bisglycinate that’s easy on the stomach, plus real food ingredients like beets and oranges, vitamin C to support absorption, and folic acid and vitamin B12 to support healthy red blood cell production.* “It’s a comprehensive iron supplement,” she states.
Meeting all your daily nutrient needs isn’t about health for health’s sake—it’s about living the life you want to live. “That’s why I’m really passionate about this,” Dr. Stokes says. “I know there are so many women out there who aren’t feeling their best and they just don’t know [why].” Feeling run down sometimes is part of life—which, Dr. Stokes says, is all the more reason to “set yourself up for success. Don’t let there be solvable factors holding you back.”
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before changing your diet or healthcare regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. Thrive Market does not represent or warrant that the nutrition, ingredient, allergen, and other product information on our website is accurate or complete, since this information comes from the product manufacturers. On occasion, manufacturers may improve or change their product formulas and update their labels. We recommend that you do not rely solely on the information presented on our website and that you review the product’s label or contact the manufacturer directly if you have specific product concerns or questions.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
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