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Dizzy. Can’t think. Can’t focus. Cold. Super pale. Weak all over. Hair falling out. No appetite. And worst: Just tired all the time.
That’s me on most months while I’m having my period. For some reason, I’m bleeding heavily and so much for the first few days. I would always feel lightheaded, much less seem find the energy to do anything. It all just feels cloudy.
So I adjusted my sleep and eat my multivitamins, fruits, and veggies, but still – they don’t do much other than bloating me up. Other than that, it all just goes downhill – I’m practically a beast even to my loved ones.
What’s a girl to do but look to WebMD?
Women and iron deficiency
Turns out iron is the #1 nutritional deficiency in the world, and most of us menstruating women don’t even know we’re running around with lower than normal iron stores.
Iron is a crucial mineral that makes up the basic component of red blood cells – the hemoglobin. Without hemoglobin, you won’t be able to transport oxygen throughout your tissues and organs as efficiently, and without oxygen you can’t breathe, and when you can’t breathe you’ll die (okay I’m exaggerating here). Also, your blood won’t be red without hemoglobin in the first place.
We lose about 30 to 80ml blood every month, but losing more is not uncommon. According to WebMD, a good way to see whether you’re bleeding more than other girls do is if you have to change your pads every 2 hours or so.
Unless you’re a regular blood donor or really pregnant, there are generally 3 causes why your iron stores run low1:
- You lose more blood cells and iron than your body can replace
- Your body does not do a good job absorbing iron
- Your body is able to absorb iron, but you are not eating enough foods that contain iron
You’ll also know you have fewer than normal iron when you start to have anemic symptoms, such as:
☑ Extreme fatigue
☑ Pale skin
☐ Shortness of breath
☐ Chest pain
☑ Frequent infections
☑ Dizziness or lightheadedness
☑ Brittle nails
☐ Fast heartbeat
☑ Cold hands and feet
☑ Inflammation or soreness of your tongue
☑ Brittle nails
☑ Unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice, dirt, or starch
☑ Poor appetite, especially in infants and children
☐ An uncomfortable tingling or crawling feeling in your legs (restless leg syndrome)
While I’m quite used to these symptoms by now, it’s only in the past few months that I noticed my complexion has gone super pale, as in like a sick person pale. Before there was just the super tired and super dazed feelings. It couldn’t have been because of poor blood circulation because I exercise regularly, so I presume it must be the heavier blood loss and little to no meat on my plate.
Two different types of dietary iron
No, I’m not a vegetarian because I can’t live without seafood and foie gras, but I generally don’t eat a lot of meat (once or twice a week tops). Meats and seafood are reputed as excellent sources of heme iron, DHA and EPA omega-3s, and quality protein. Now before you say huh? from the lingo I just put out there, basically there are two types of iron from foods: Heme iron and non-heme iron. The only difference is that heme iron is more easily absorbed by the human body than non-heme iron, just like how DHA and EPA omega-3s are more easily absorbed than ALA omega-3s. As to why I don’t eat much meat, it’s really because I prefer pasta 99% of the time for taste. Other than that, high temp-cooked meats tend to contain carcinogens, not to mention low-quality, hormone-fed processed meats are practically everywhere.
The Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine recommends a daily dose of 18mg of iron for women between ages 19 and 50 (27mg if you’re pregnant; 9mg if you’re lactating). I reckoned I have to up my intake of iron anyhow because of the little meat. So below, I’d just like to share some non-heme iron-rich foods I’m recently gobbling on, some of which you won’t expect to provide you with much more iron than the average 3.5 oz serving of grass-fed beef (about 15% of your RDA of iron):
My favorite iron-pumped foods
Cooked pearled barley
This has been my mom’s homemade comfort foods since I was a child. She’d ask our helpers to make it about twice a month, then sweeten it with a bit of rock sugar and cool it in the fridge. It’ll come out cool and soft and simply chewy (almost like pudding). These days I’d add a dash of ginger to spice things up a bit, and whenever they’re around while I’m having my period, I noticed a big difference after eating a cup of this on my energy levels. Not immediately though, but that lethargic feeling dissipates by the hour.
Although a cup of cooked pearled barley only provides 12% of the RDV of iron, it’s haloed for its high fiber (for you to pass motion regularly, a.k.a. maintain digestive health) and B-vitamins content (for optimal metabolic functions and healthy nervous system). If you’re like me, you might be missing out on a lot of B-vitamins because you don’t eat much meat. So here’s a comfort food that gives you loads of it.
Tofu + egg(s)
Among the many foods I can have everyday and still love (cheese, garlic, eggs), tofu is one of those that has a staying power unlike any other, particularly because it’s versatile. Just 1/2 a cup of tofu gives you 11% of your RDA of iron. In addition to that, it provides up to 25% of your RDA of calcium, the mineral you need to stop feeling weak at your knees and strengthen up those skeletal muscles.
Also, my mom has been force-feeding my brothers and I a hardboiled egg every single day of our lives, and now that I’m an adult, I was glad she did. The habit gives you 3% of your RDA of iron in just under 80 calories, along with 6% of the complexion-brightening Vitamin A and 28% of the antioxidant selenium. All that goodness is in the yolk, so don’t ever separate the whites with the yolk.
Raisins, prunes, pumpkin seeds
Raisins are some serious energy powerhouse, and I mean, seriously. A pack of Sun Maid’s has always given me that instant kick of energy, and again, I only have my mom to thank for for introducing us to raisins as a snack since we’re very young. I never knew about the science behind the boost in energy till the day I found out about its high iron content, at least compared to other fruits. There’s a reason why endurance athletes take it up – 100g of the dried grapes already packs 10% of your daily iron needs, along with 4% vitamin C for you to better absorb those iron, essential B-vitamins, and up to 21% potassium to reduce blood pressure and improve muscle endurance.
Along with the milder taste of prunes and the crunchiness of pumpkin seeds, they all make one really sweet snack to get the blood pumping. Although they’re only a decent source of iron, 100g of prunes pack as much potassium as that of raisins do, plus the B-vitamins, a whopping 74% of your RDA of vitamin K to prevent excessive bleeding, and 16% of vitamin A for a rosier complexion as well as a better vision.
Pumpkin seeds not only provide an extra crunch to these velvety dried fruits, they also boast plenty of antioxidants, healthy fats, essential amino acids (particularly the sleep-inducing tryptophan), and of course, our hemoglobin-making iron. 1 oz. of it provides 23% of your iron needs, 18% vitamin K, and a wide variety of trace minerals (namely the energy-activating magnesium, immunity-boosting zinc, copper to work with iron for the formation of red blood cells, collagen-producing manganese, and metabolism-boosting phosphorus) – all in just 150 calories.
Okay, so this is a different breed from the regular spinach, sometimes called the red Chinese spinach, amaranth leaves, or simply the red spinach. It’s a pretty common breed in Indonesia (called bayam merah here) as well as in other tropical and subtropical regions around the world. Just 100g of raw regular spinach already gives you a whopping 20% RDA of iron (plus 617% vitamin K, 210% vitamin A, 16% vitamin C, and 14% calcium), and this one isn’t all that much different except that it’s packed with much more protein. It tastes heartier (a bit like kale) and a lot chewier too. To get the most out of these rubies, eat them cooked instead of raw.
Another family of Chinese spinach I usually eat for blood replenishment is the water spinach, or normally referred as kangkong. Basically all spinach has similar nutritional profiles, and nutritionists (and Popeye) love the leafy greens for its rich vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, folic acid (helps in the formation of red blood cells), and calcium content. In fact, spinach is one of the most common superfoods usually recommended as a remedy for those suffering from anemia23. If you’re never fond of spinach, I’m pretty sure you’re going to like kangkong. It’s the crunchiest kind of all.
Tempeh + petai
Of all the fermented foods out there, tempeh is my favorite, particularly because I think no matter how soybeans are prepared, they always taste good. Just a cup of this fiber and protein powerhouse gives you 25% RDA of iron, 108% manganese, 46% copper, 44% phosphorus, 34% magnesium, and 18% calcium. Throw in some petai into a large bowl of sambal-dressed tempeh and you’ll have an easier time managing your energy levels (as well as your bowel movements).
I should warn you though, that when you’re eating petai or stink beans (or simply known as pete here in Indonesia), make sure you’re dining in. These legumes are notorious for causing you to fart constantly and smell like a dragon’s breath for the day. Your pee would even smell like it, thanks to its potent amino acids.
Despite all that stink, petai is a national favorite as the edamame is to the Japanese. According to CNN, it’s supposed to treat a wide variety of conditions, namely diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, anemia, PMS, depression, constipation, and even hangovers. Based on a Malaysian study, petai is found to be a potential phytomedicine for its antibacterial, antioxidant, anticancer properties. They’re a great source of calcium, B-vitamins, potassium, vitamins C and E, and iron – about 14% RDA per 100g. I mainly eat it for constipation purposes, but good to know it’s a great source of iron as well.
Back in the days when all I’d eat is chocolate ice creams and chocolate bars during PMS week, I’d be feeling better for a good day or two, then my energy dips again. So these days I started to mix it up with other iron-rich foods, although dark chocolate has always been my favorite (and I’m sure yours too). Just make sure you’re not opting for the milk or white varieties, because they’re practically useless and all too sweet anyway. Dark chocolate (about 70-85% cocoa) has the highest percentage of natural cocoa and cocoa butters content, with 100g (about the size of 1 bar) of it giving you 66% of RDA of iron, a whopping 44% fiber content, a surprisingly high vitamin K (9%) for a packaged food, 97% manganese, 88% copper, 57% magnesium, 31% phosphorus, and 22% zinc; not to mention it’s also high in antioxidants – sometimes even higher than blueberries and acai berries.
Even when I’m ovulating and seem to high energy levels (with little mood swings of course), I still crave that distinctive smell of raw cacao. So sometimes I use pure cacao powder in my oatmeal, or just simply mix a tablespoon of it with manuka honey, some ginger and cinnamon on warm water to make a simple hot chocolate. Easy peasy.
What about you? How do you manage your energy levels during bleeding? Let me know which other iron-rich foods you’re already eating right now.