“Sorry, you’ve been rejected because your iron levels are too low.”
That was the feedback I heard after waiting two hours for my turn to donate plasma at my local blood/plasma donation. “Are you on your period?” the intake technician asked.
I wasn’t, but immediately suspected my near-vegetarian diet to be the culprit of my lost opportunity and newfound deficiency. I left feeling annoyed and wondering if I should stop for a cheeseburger.
A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to mention this to my OBGYN. She wasn’t surprised, and said that regular periods are often a cause or catalyst for iron-deficient anemia (IDA). In fact, one in five women of childbearing age has IDA, which makes sense when you consider that the average amount of blood lost during each menstrual cycle is 30–40 milliliters. Women considered to have heavy bleeding can even lose up to 80 milliliters or more.
IDA usually develops over time when you don’t have enough iron to make healthy red blood cells, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Its symptoms vary from person to person and by severity, but some of the more common symptoms are extreme fatigue (another personal red flag), shortness of breath, headache, pale skin, cold hands and feet, and chest pain.
For some women, that’s where oral birth control pills can come in. Not only does an oral contraceptive help a multitude of conditions and minimize blood loss—which can be a key component of preventing anemia—but some formulas also contain ferrous fumarate (iron) pills.
Birth control is often prescribed to control IDA because it treats the underlying cause of the anemia (in cases where periods are to blame). However, menstruation may not be the only cause so it’s still important to check with your doctor before loading up on supplements or switching to a pill that offers iron pills.
If you’ve ever Googled “which birth control pill is best” and read through all the results, you’ve likely seen several that have “Fe” in the name. These are the brands that add about 75 milligrams of ferrous fumarate or other iron supplements to the reminder (or inactive) pills. The idea is that these added iron supplements help replenish what is lost during each cycle. With studies citing a decrease of up to 60% in blood loss and number of bleeding days, it’s well worth a shot when you consider what a shorter, lighter period could do to your iron levels—especially in combination with the added iron boost.
Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.