Exercise worsens iron deficiency in women: study

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Do you get fatigue easily even though you exercise regularly? Is your hair thinning? Do you have brittle nails? You may be iron deficient if you have these symptoms.

Iron deficiency is more prevalent among Singaporean women than realized, and regular exercise increases the risk for a woman, according to a local study by health-screening provider SATA Comm-Health.

In the study, SATA Comm-Health screened 600 healthy women. The women were recruited from a running event held in November 2015. Nearly 1 in 2 of the women screened were found to be iron deficient.

The finding was reported by the Straits Times on November 26.

As the early symptoms are mild, many women are unaware they are iron deficient. “People can be tired all the time, and they just think that they’re not resting enough, but that’s not always the case,” Associate Professor Carolyn Lam of the National Heart Centre told the Straits Times.

Dizziness, sallow skin and shortness of breath after light exercise are other symptoms of iron deficiency.

Iron is needed to produce haemoglobin and myoglobin, which carry oxygen through the bloodstream to the body’s tissues and muscles. The body needs constant supply of oxygen to function properly. Iron deficiency is more common among women than men. Pregnancy and heavy menstrual flows, where there are severe blood loss, are common causes of iron deficiency.

Exercise also depletes the level of iron in a women’s body. Research showed women athletes are more susceptible to iron deficiency than women who are less active. The study by SATA Comm-Health highlighted that Singaporean women who exercise need to increase their iron intake.

If left untreated, chronic iron deficiency may cause anaemia. Anaemia occurs when the body is not producing enough red blood cells. Iron-deficiency anaemia is the most common type of anaemia. Symptoms include dizziness, shortness of breath and headaches, very similar to symptoms for iron deficiency. Anaemia in a pregnant woman may affect the development of the baby, and increases the mortality risk for the mother during child-birth.

Iron deficiency also worsens the condition of patients with coronary heart diseases. The heart pumps blood to the rest of the body. A lack of iron in the body affects the supply of oxygen to the heart. But when the iron deficiency is corrected, “they (the heart patients) feel better, and they also do better in terms of staying out of hospital and surviving the disease,” Dr. Lam told the Straits Times.

Iron is readily available in food like red meat, poultry, nuts, peas and dark green vegetables like spinach and kailan. In particular, chicken liver and pig kidneys are rich in iron. Since eating innards of animals are no longer popular, your butcher may be happy to sell the chicken liver and pig kidney to you for a song.

There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is obtained mainly from meat sources. It is more easily absorbed by the body than non-heme iron, which is mainly from vegetables and nuts. If you are vegetarian, consult your doctor whether you need to include iron supplements into your diet.  You may not be consuming enough dietary iron.

For women who exercise regularly, or if you are just starting out on an exercise program, don’t skip meals. Make sure you are getting enough iron in your diet. A balanced diet is the best method to keep your iron level healthy.



Lai, Linette (2015, November 26). Women ‘not aware of iron deficiency.’ The Straits Times, pp. B16.

Van Gammeren, Darin (2008). Vitamins and Minerals. In: Jose Antonio, Douglas Kalman et al (Eds.), Essentials of Sport Nutrition and Supplements (pp. 321). New Jersey: Humana Press.



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