Iron Deficiency: One Woman's Story
Healing begins with a diagnosis.
It had been an unusual year in my life. I had changed jobs, changed social circles, had my adult children move home. The previous year I had been leader of two different bands, and my life had been immersed with music, but I had stepped out of both—a huge change. I’d had car troubles repeatedly—was in a collision with a deer which totaled one vehicle and left me healing from whiplash while the replacement vehicle I purchased for cash blew its engine after only six weeks. Worse was the sad reality that nine people within my social circle had died in a fifteen-month period. I was exhausted. A year of relentless stress had taken a huge toll.
I spent my free time zoning out on the sofa and watching Netflix. I had no interest in maintaining a social calendar. I am a beach baby by nature, but I couldn’t even bother to go outside and enjoy the Okanagan summer sunshine. Even my guitar-player callouses were softening because I just hadn’t been playing. For me, realizing that I didn’t have energy or drive to go to the beach or even touch a guitar was a definite sign of malaise.
Work, where I was store manager in a pet store chain, became consuming, and then, quickly, too much. The job had a physical component, and hauling thirty-pound bags of food began to put stress on my body. Not only was I constantly covered in bruises, an old ankle injury began acting up so that even wrapping it every day failed to keep me from going home in daily pain.
For the first time in my life, I started to experience the Godzilla of menstrual cycles. I was experiencing extremely heavy bleeding as well as longer and more frequent cycles. It seemed like I would start a new cycle every time delivery day happened at work. I wondered if the heavy physical labour of delivery days was causing some sort of injury. Had I entered menopause? Or was my body maybe reacting to the stress of my year? I didn’t know, but with my periods suddenly extended and flooding, I was unsure how I was going to continue to function.
By mid-August, my usually quick, alert mind felt cloudy, muddy. I couldn’t seem to concentrate or hold onto a thought, or sometimes a word. I began to dread going in to the job I had once loved. Headaches became a daily battle, and I began to seriously consider applying for sick leave at work.
Soon, I found it difficult to get out of bed on my days off. I would doze off on the sofa any time I sat down. I’d sit, turn on the TV, and be asleep within five minutes. I’d sleep on the couch for hours, wake up, go to the bedroom, sleep the rest of the night, and still find it difficult to drag myself out of bed in the morning. What little energy I had, I directed to my children and extended family. I backed out of every other commitment.
What is WRONG with me?
My fatigue that year didn’t strike me as surprising, given all that was going on in life. I mean, I knew something was different. I wasn’t pleased. My body wasn’t regenerating at its usual pace, but then, I wasn’t getting any younger. I was sweaty and huffing for breath with the smallest degree of physical exertion, but a year of sitting on the couch wasn’t getting me fitter. Or thinner, either. Heavy periods and heavy body mass—with a healthy dose of stress added—no doubt explained my desire for naps.
One day on the phone, my mother mentioned that she and my sister had been discussing my "depression." Her casual comment shocked me. I’ve never been a depressed person. Despite all the symptoms in my life at that point, I didn’t "feel" depressed. I’d been grieving, for sure, but that was different.
“I don’t think I’m depressed,” I told my mom. I knew I wasn’t "right," but I could tell that I was actively going through the process of grieving my friendships. I wasn’t getting stuck. I was allowing myself to feel the pain, and so I was slowly healing from the pain. I could tell when my grief-clouded mind began to clear and see the beauty in life, so I knew I was actively walking through that process and knew I was healing. Yet, despite a renewal of optimism, my fatigue persisted. “I’m just tired. All the time.”
I googled causes of fatigue. It seems fatigue can be linked to everything, from migraines to flu bugs and all the way to imminently life-threatening cancers and heart conditions and unpronounceable communicable diseases. One potential cause of fatigue caught my eye -- iron deficiency.
I didn’t have personal experience with low iron levels, but I knew other women who had. With my heavy periods, it seemed plausible, so I clicked on a link and read about the symptoms of iron deficiency. These included: Bruising, headaches, hair loss, difficulties concentrating, low attention span, heavy periods, loss of interest in activities, sore muscles, trouble breathing, pale skin, aching joints. And, of course, fatigue.
I might have been reading the synopsis of my year. The lists of symptoms presented in the articles varied slightly, but I definitely recognized myself in them.
Diagnosis and Healing
"I could have been reading a synopsis of my year."
I took myself to the clinic and described some of my symptoms to the doctor. When I mentioned the deaths of my friends, I started to cry. Despite my tears, he focused on my physical symptoms and sent me immediately off for blood tests. Four vials later, I’d been tested for hormone levels, thyroid levels, iron levels, among other possibilities. Three days later, I received a call from the nurse. My hormone levels were normal, but my thyroid was borderline, and my iron was definitely low.
I had a diagnosis, and a script for a supplement.
I started taking a 300mg supplement of iron daily. My choice was to take it in the morning with breakfast. My mother warned me that iron supplements can, at times cause constipation, and recommended I stock up on apples. I took the pills religiously, and within a week, I could already see a difference. The fog which had taken residence in my head began to clear. I could think clearly and logically again. I packed my guitar into my car, drove to the beach, and wrote a song. You know you have been unwell when your normal becomes remarkable.
One week into taking the supplements, I caught a flu bug from my daughter. The energy I’d felt returning disappeared over night, and I was miffed. It seemed so unfair! This bug, though, worked itself from my system in a mere matter of days. My improving iron levels had obviously helped my tired immune system.
Once the flu moved on, my overall health steadily improved. My energy levels continued to climb. Not only did I no longer need daily naps, I was back to a healthy seven hours of sleep a night and a normal energy level throughout my day. My headaches diminished from several days a week of agony to a minor pain once or twice a month. The constant ache in my ankle stopped, and I no longer needed to wrap my foot to get through my day. On a longer shift, I would still feel twinges, but going home in daily pain became a thing of the past. My periods went from Nightmare on Elm Street to Kotex Light Days in one month.
As every aspect of my physical health improved so dramatically and so quickly, I began to change my life. I set coffee dates with friends. I began renovations in my living room. I quit my management job and took two part-time positions—one at a book store and one working at 6:30 AM in a daycare.
“I wouldn’t have dreamed of having the energy to do this three months ago,” I told my mother. She had just commented on how much happier I seemed. She was right.
Generally speaking, I have been a healthy, energetic person my entire life. Within three months of taking supplements, my energy levels returned to their normal levels. The effect of the supplements was so dramatic, I had to regret not getting a diagnosis sooner. I suffered in ways I needn’t have, had I only known sooner that there was an easily identifiable cause with a simple solution for my health.
According to Jaclyn Hughes, iron is essential because it helps our blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. When you don’t get enough oxygen, your body will not work at peak efficiency. (“10 Telltale Signs That You’re Not Getting Enough Iron,” November 22nd, 2017.) Iron deficiency can be difficult to identify, though, because so many of the symptoms – taken on their own – seem innocuous and common. Who hasn’t felt tired at different times in life?
As in my case, there may be multiple explanations for the symptoms you are experiencing. On the other hand, diagnosis of iron deficiency is as simple as a blood test. With supplements, healing happens rapidly. So, don’t delay. If you or someone you love has become unusually lethargic or if you have any reason to suspect you are low in iron, get tested today. Get back to feeling your best, and to fully living your life.