‘Physically, mentally and psychologically debilitating’

Low iron levels, anemia keeping two Nova Scotia women from enjoying life




SaltWire Network



Cole Harbour native Denice Nicholson has been battling anemia since she was 13 years old. She’s not alone — the World Health Organization estimates that one-third of all women, 40 per cent of pregnant women and over 40 per cent of kids under five are anemic due to low iron levels. For Nicholson, her anemia is caused from a combination of her menstrual cycle, difficulty absorbing iron and a tiny ulcer. “I had low iron, low iron stores and low vitamin B12,” she says. There was one time her iron was so low, “the lab called me into the emergency room for a top up, but it was still a struggle to get an infusion,” she says. Living with anemia has come with challenges. Nicholson had to be off work for several years. “I was exhausted constantly, gained weight, was sweating all the time and it was really bad for my mood. It took longer to heal from injuries and I had no energy or stamina,” she says. When you physically and mentally can’t do anything and the reason isn’t apparent, she says, you start to beat yourself up. Nicholson points out that different levels of anemia hit people differently, “with some people thriving on iron levels that would put another person on their ass.” What worked for Nicholson was having her oozing ulcer closed and having two rounds of iron infusions, although they were very difficult to have prescribed. LIVING WITH LOW IRON Vikki Poirier from Chester, N.S. has been dealing with low iron for seven years, and her four-year-old son was also just recently diagnosed with it. Poirier says it hasn’t been determined what is causing her low iron. Because of her low iron, Poirier says her skin is pale and she often suffers from fatigue, low energy and dizziness. “Raising four kids becomes a challenge when I’m really low, and my housework suffers,” says Poirier. Her son sleeps a lot when his iron is low and he is also very pale. Poirier tried oral supplements but they caused constipation. “After working with my dialysis team, we decided iron infusions were best during my treatments. My son is also now on an oral supplement daily,” she says. IRON IN FOODS How big a problem is anemia and low iron in Atlantic Canada? Samantha Blizzard, a registered dietitian at the Charlottetown Atlantic Superstore and Montague Atlantic Superstore in P.E.I., comes across many individuals dealing with low iron or anemia and the associated symptoms. “I most commonly see vegetarians or pregnant women for this, though anyone can experience low iron levels,” she says. Before recommending specific foods to a client in an effort to increase their iron levels, Blizzard says it’s important for her to do a full assessment to determine which foods make the most sense to add into a person’s diet. “The foods I choose to discuss are based on what they are already eating, what foods they enjoy, and any other lifestyle factors that may impact iron consumption,” says Blizzard. A common recommendation Blizzard makes is to choose grain products that are high in iron. “Since most of us are eating these foods on a regular basis anyway, it tends to be a simple ask,” she says. “Check the per cent daily value of iron on the nutrition label of your cereals, oatmeal, granola and bread products. Compare to other similar products in store and choose ones with a higher percentage of iron where possible.” Another easy addition, Blizzard says, is to add nuts and seeds to meals and snacks, such as pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds and cashews. “Snacking on trail-mix, adding hemp seeds to your yogurt or adding cashews to a stir fry are three great ways to add more iron into your meals using nuts and seeds,” she says. Eating a significant source of protein at all meals will help you increase your iron levels. Foods like meat, poultry, fish and eggs should often be a part of your meals, which she says can be challenging for vegetarians. For non-meat protein options, Blizzard recommends beans, legumes and tofu. Because these may not necessarily be staple foods in many households, that’s where the help of a dietitian can be helpful, she adds. She also recommends some vegetables as significant sources of iron, including most green vegetables like broccoli, spinach, snow peas and asparagus. MISCONCEPTIONS One common misconception Blizzard hears from her clients is “when anemic, you must be on a vitamin C supplement to enhance the absorption of iron from food.” She points out that most fruits and vegetables are already an excellent source of vitamin C, making supplementation unnecessary in most cases. “During my one-on-one consultations, I teach my clients about balancing their meals by including a protein source, a whole grain and a veggie or fruit,” she says. “By pairing these foods together you’re bound to get a significant source of iron from both the protein and the whole grain, then adding the fruit or veggie provides the vitamin C required to enhance iron absorption without needing a supplement.” Another big misconception, says Nicholson, is that you can’t always “eat more meat your way out of it.” “There are lots of iron-rich meat alternatives, but you can’t always solve it through diet,” says Nicholson. She points out that iron pills can cause havoc with your stomach and do not work for everyone. “A lot of people think you can solve anemia through diet or over-the-counter meds and there is a lot of shame built into our society around that,” she says. Poirier has also had a lot of people tell her to eat more iron-enriched foods. “We both eat the best we can and it really didn’t help. Sometimes that’s not the solution,” Poirier says. Having anemia is like boiling a frog, explains Nicholson. You can get used to anything in small increments and that’s how you go from OK to surprisingly unwell without really noticing. Nicholson says anemia is “physically, mentally and psychologically debilitating, and since it comes in so many levels of intensity, anemia in one person can be mild discomfort where, in someone like me, it can be life-altering.”