Last Thursday, I went to donate blood as usual at the Canadian Blood Services clinic that comes to town every 56 days. That’s the minimum amount of time a person has to wait in between donations, and this was supposed to be my fourth donation in a row. The first step is to do a finger prick in order to assess the blood’s hemoglobin level, which comes from iron. My level is usually high enough to elicit a surprised comment from the nurse about how healthy my blood is. This time, however, she stayed quiet, asked a few questions, then repeated the test. She lowered her voice: “Your hemoglobin is very low. I’m going to take you into a special room to talk with another nurse.” Then she carefully led me across the room, as if I were suddenly a fragile being, into a private booth where I sat with increasingly nervous thoughts circulating in my mind.
It turns out my hemoglobin level is 107, which is not good for a woman. Normal levels are between 120-160 g/L. Possible causes are lack of sleep, stress, heavy menstruation, or not enough iron in one’s diet. I know it’s none of the first three items on the list, so it’s got to be the fourth. Coincidentally — or maybe not so coincidentally — we’ve been eating much less meat over the past two months, so I’m fairly certain that’s what has caused my iron levels to plummet. The nurse recommended I see a doctor. Then I left, feeling rather dejected and upset. I’ve never had any kind of medical issue or internal imbalance (that I know of), so it’s a very foreign sensation to think that something is deficient in my body right now.
A friend who is currently post-partum also has a low iron level, though it’s still higher than mine. Her doctor told her not to go back to the gym yet or do any intense cardio until the level goes up. I can’t help but wonder if my low level has anything to do with my recent lethargy at the gym and seeming inability to perform as well as I’d like. I’ve been attributing it to the heat, which is likely true to some extent, but obviously there’s something more going on.
The first thing I did when I left the blood clinic was stop at the butcher shop, conveniently right next door. I bought $50 worth of red meat, then came home to eat a huge plate of slow-cooked short ribs. I still don’t want to go back to eating meat with the regularity that we used to, but I realize I’ll have to increase it somewhat. According to this list, given to me at the clinic, I already eat tons of the non-heme iron sources but few of the heme:
Iron comes in two forms:
Heme iron, which is easily absorbed by your body. Foods with heme iron include beef, lamb, pork, liver, veal, chicken, turkey (the dark meat has more iron), fish and seafood.
Non-heme iron, which is absorbed less readily. Foods with non-heme iron include breakfast cereals (fortified with iron), breads and pasta (whole grain and enriched), lentils, dried peas and beans, tofu, seeds and nuts (pumpkin, sesame or peanut), dried fruit (raisins or apricots), dark green, leafy vegetables, and eggs.
As frustrating as it was not to donate blood, I’m glad to find this out and be able to take the necessary steps to fix it. I’m curious if anyone else has had this problem. Any idea how long it takes for iron stores to return to healthy levels?