Battle of the Sexes: Iron Edition

Why Do Women Need More Iron than Men? 

Editor’s Note: This article is for informational purposes only. You should not use it to replace any professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment of any health issues. Any questions about your blood health should be directed toward a physician, hematologist, or other licensed healthcare professional.

There’s a simple explanation for why women are more likely to be anemic than men – here’s what you can do about it.

More than 1.62 billion people across the world have iron deficiency anemia, all of whom are of different races, ethnicities, and ages. That’s why it’s important that everyone makes sure they’re getting enough iron through their diet.

That said, women need a greater amount of iron than men to keep anemia symptoms at bay. In fact, pregnant women’s dietary iron intake is triple that of men.

If you’re wondering why women need more iron than men, there’s actually a simple explanation. But knowing why this is the case isn’t enough, and women should be aware of the potential side effects of iron deficiency anemia.

Why Women Are More Likely to Develop Anemia 

Why women develop anemiaThe reason why women need more iron, and are more likely to be anemic, are because of their periods.

More than 70 percent of our body’s iron stores can be found in our blood, and when women go through menstruation they can lose around 1 mg of iron per menstrual cycle.

That number depends on the severity of their period. Women who experience excessive blood loss can sometimes lose 1.5 mg of iron per day.

As we’ve mentioned before, iron is an essential mineral that helps produce hemoglobin, a protein found in our red blood cells that helps transport oxygen throughout our body. So if you have low iron levels, you’ll have low hemoglobin levels and will probably exhibit some symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia, which may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Physical weakness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Tiredness
  • Pallor (Pale or yellowish skin)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Headaches
  • Chest pains
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Brittle nails

It should be noted that anemia is just one of the reasons why women are colder than men (the main reason is due to having a slower metabolism, but anemia can be a contributing factor).

Pregnant Women and Anemia

Women are more anemic than men, but pregnant women in particular need to watch their hemoglobin levels and track their anemia symptoms. We’ll cover everything you need to know about anemia and pregnancy in a future blog post, but for now it’s important to know that if you are, or are planning to become pregnant that your body has even greater iron requirements during this time.

The Mayo Clinic says most pregnant women should get at least 27 mg of iron per day, compared to 18 for the average woman (and just 8 for men). Why the big increase? First, you need some for your own body, but iron is also key in the formation of the placenta, as well as providing nutrients to the growing baby.

Your body also loses blood, and therefore loses iron, during childbirth as well.

Low iron intake doesn’t just impact the mother, but it can also lead to low birth weight and shorter breastfeeding periods. Women should work with a dietitian and other health professionals to ensure they’re getting enough iron during their pregnancy.

Menopause and Iron Intake

As women age, their body needs less iron. This is especially true once they reach menopause.

There are are few studies that look at the connection between menopause and anemia, but one thing doctors point out is that women should make sure they’re not eating too much iron. Women ages 51 and older need about 8 mg of iron per day, compared to the daily requirement of 18 mg for those of childbearing age.

Excess iron intake, sometimes called hemochromatosis, can lead to multiple symptoms, including:

  • Chest pains
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Joint pain
  • Stomach pain
  • Weight loss
  • Liver failure

What to Know if You Have Anemia

Anemia should always be treated, as it could cause organ damage if it’s not addressed in time. Women who become anemic due to heavy periods should talk to their doctor to see if there’s any treatments that can stop the onset of the condition’s symptoms.

The easiest way to prevent anemia is to eat more iron-rich foods. Reaching your daily iron intake is a great way to prevent anemia, keep your hemoglobin levels in check, and prevent the onset of any symptoms.

Why women need more iron than men

We’ll give you the good news first: dark chocolate is one of the recommended foods. Here are some other great sources of iron:

  • Spinach
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Iron-fortified breakfast cereals
  • Legumes
  • Red meat
  • Lentils
  • Tofu
  • Turkey
  • Chickpeas
  • Potatoes
  • Mushrooms

Iron supplements and multivitamins can also be a great way to increase your iron intake, but you should talk to your doctor before taking anything and make sure to find one that suits your dietary needs.

You should also focus on eating foods high in Vitamin C, a mineral that helps with iron absorption. This is vital for vegetarians or vegans, as plant-based sources of iron have what’s called non-heme iron, which can’t be used by the body quite as easily as heme iron (the type found in animal-based products).

How Many Men and Women are Impacted by Anemia

Women make up 30 percent of the more than 1.62 billion people with anemia, making them the third-highest demographic at risk for the world’s most common blood disorder, according to the World Health Organization. That doesn’t even include pregnant women, 42 percent of which are impacted by the disease—the second-highest demographic, only behind preschool-aged children.

Those numbers don’t paint the whole picture, though. For example, Black women have higher percentages than White women—specifically, Black women aged 80-85 are 6.4-times more likely than the average population to develop anemia, and Black women ages 15-49 were 3.8-4.7 times more likely.

By contrast, only about 12-13 percent of men worldwide are impacted by anemia worldwide and they’re the least at-risk demographic.

These numbers can vary slightly by region, owing in part to factors such as environment, diet, and access to healthcare, but biological differences are the biggest driver of the statistical gap.

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