Tasty, crunchy, juicy kale could help replenish someone's depleted iron.
As a child, I went through an anemic phase, a very tired time punctuated by my mother chasing me around the house with a dropper of metallic drops to squirt on my tongue. I was 4. This explains the wave of horror I felt some weeks ago when, after examining my tongue, my ayurvedic doctor stated matter-of-factly: “Oh, yeah, you are anemic, my friend.”
Chomping copious amounts of iron-rich beets and kale, per her orders, I began to feel a bit more energetic, and also to obsess. I found that food writer Molly Wizenberg has also been recently diagnosed with anemia, which, she wrote in her blog, “at least partly explained why I had nearly dozed off at a stoplight a couple of times and once cried when I couldn’t get a kitchen drawer to open.”
Wait. So iron deficiency could also be the culprit of my inexplicable bouts of unprovoked frustration? And should I be consuming “the good, grass-fed kind” of beef that Wizenberg’s doctor prescribed her? And most terrifyingly, was it time to seek the dreaded iron drops of my youth?
My research tirade would not be calmed until the voice of Dr. Priya Chakravarthi sang to me a few days ago from her office in Palo Alto, where she works as a hematologist and oncologist.
“Anemia is really a symptom,” Dr. Chakravarthi corrected me, “because the causes can be very different and varied.” Red blood cells should typically circulate for 90-120 days, but often break down much faster in anemics. Deficiency in iron or in B12 are two of the most common causes of anemia, especially for pre-menopausal women.
“Our bodies are actually quite efficient in holding on to iron, so unless there’s prolonged durations of poor production or prolonged duration of increased bleeding, we do not lose iron easily,” she explained. “But women, being prone to having monthly bleeding, can become iron deficient, and unless it’s identified they may live with anemia for a very long time.”
Though the body may be able to adapt to some degree of anemia, many women Dr. Chakravarthi sees don’t realize just how bad they were feeling until they begin taking iron supplements. This especially occurs in women with “dysfunctional uterine bleeding,” a hellish-sounding condition in which women have their menses for two weeks at a time.
So what about crying at a stuck kitchen drawer? “There may certainly be mood disturbances in association with extreme fatigue,” replies Dr. Chakravarthi. Shortness of breath, inability to exercise, pallor of the tongue and whites of the eyes and “pica” (the curious condition of craving crunchy substances, and perhaps an evolutionary reaction to low iron) are other symptoms of anemia.
A full blood test is the best way to gauge the level and causes of anemia, but those without health insurance may have to play more of a trial-and-error game with the supplement aisle of our local pharmacy.
“Typically when somebody’s deficient of iron you would need often 50-100mg of elemental iron,” says Dr. Chakravarthi, who warns that packages may be misleading in the amount of elemental iron they actually contain.
More severe cases should probably go for the drops. As for that medium rare lamb chop that I recently dreamed about: “To be able to eat that much red meat to the extent that it could actually replenish iron sources [in moderate to extreme cases of anemia] is probably not going to be healthy from many other standpoints,” says Dr. Chakravarthi.
In other words, try a multivitamin and eat more kale.