Some woman sail through their time of the month but for others, it can, literally, feel like torture. There are lots of factors involved in how you feel during your period but possibly the single most important factor is your level of iron – and the good news is, that factor is most definitely within your control
The basics of menstruation
It may have been a while since you studied science, so let’s recap the basics of menstruation. In very simple terms, during your reproductive years, your body spends most of each month readying itself for pregnancy. About once a month it checks to see if you are pregnant and if not, it cleans out everything it has prepared to support the pregnancy and starts again. Basically, your period is the visible sign of your body having a cleanup. Only part of your period is actual blood, the rest of it is nutrients and tissue.
The effects of blood loss
It’s not so much the loss of the blood itself which is the big problem, it’s the loss of what’s in the blood. Your blood is what transports the oxygen and nourishment your body needs to where it is needed, so when you lose blood, you also lose everything the blood contained. This isn’t necessarily a problem, if your periods are light and you’re getting plenty of nourishment, you might not even notice it. If, however, you have heavier periods and/or should really be getting more nourishment in your diet, it can become an issue.
Blood loss and anemia
When you lose blood, you lose the iron contained in the blood and this can lead to anemia. Women with heavy period are at particular risk of anemia, but even women with lighter flows can suffer from it if they are only just getting enough iron in their diet and if they are already deficient then, of course, the problem will get even worse, as will its effects. Younger women, still going through puberty and highly active women have a particularly high need for iron and are therefore especially susceptible to the impact of losing it during their periods.
Classic “menstrual symptoms” are often a pointer to iron deficiency
If your period leaves you feeling weak, tired, dizzy, breathless, lacking appetite or generally under the weather, it may be “just one of those things” but it may also be a pointer to iron deficiency. Menstrual cramps can also be triggered by low iron. Medical practitioners have long been aware of the connection between menstruation and iron deficiency but it took a recent Finnish study to underline just how strong the connection is.
Managing your iron intake during menstruation
Before we get on to the subject of iron intake during menstruation, it may be worth taking a step back and double-checking that you’re actually getting enough iron in your diet in the first place. Medical authorities routinely cite iron deficiency as a major problem in the U.S.A. (and the world in general) and you may find that you aren’t actually getting as much iron as you think particularly if you are vegetarian or vegan and so getting iron from plant-based sources only.
For the record, it is perfectly possible to consume sufficient iron without eating meat, even if you are going through puberty and/or very active, but you do need to be aware of the fact that plant-based iron is, effectively, lower-quality than iron from meat, so you need to eat more of it to compensate.
Assuming you are getting enough iron on a regular basis, you essentially have two solutions to your need for extra iron during your menstrual cycle. The first solution is to adjust your diet to compensate and the second is just to take an iron supplement. Even though, in general terms, we’re big believers in getting as much nourishment as you can through diet, for practical purposes, taking a supplement is often the best option for busy, modern women as it ensures you get the iron you need without making major changes to your eating habits.