Heavy periods are awful for many obvious reasons—cramping, bleeding through countless tampons and pads, limiting your daily activity—plus they can leave you iron deficient, which can cause all sorts of physical and emotional side effects.
When we lose blood, we lose iron—roughly 220 to 250 milligrams per pint. For women with especially heavy flows, menstruation can cause iron-deficiency anemia—a condition that occurs when the body can't make enough healthy red blood cells. Anemia can cause fatigue, shortness of breath, headache, and dizziness, and previous studies have also linked it to decreases in physical performance, cognitive function, and mood.
So a group of researchers from Finland's Hyvinkää Hospital set out to see if treating anemia might help improve these symptoms for women with heavy menstrual bleeding. They studied 236 women who were either being given hysterectomies or put on an IUD, both common treatments for controlling heavy periods. These procedures would stop or lessen the patients' monthly flow pretty much immediately, but the researchers suspected that many of the women also had low iron levels that could take a while to replenish.
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Tests showed that 27 percent of the women were anemic (based on their red blood cell count) and 60 percent had severe iron deficiencies. A year after the women received treatment for their heavy periods, their red blood cell counts had increased to non-anemic levels—but those who had been anemic still had significantly lower blood cell counts than those who hadn't. Iron levels for those who were previously deficient took even longer—five whole years—to return to normal.
At the one-year mark, researchers noticed that the previously anemic group reported significant increases in energy and physical and social functioning, along with decreases in anxiety and depression, when compared with the women who hadn't been anemic to start. This suggests that their improved "quality of life" scores had at least something to do with correcting their anemia and not just stopping their heavy bleeding.
This shows iron supplements may help prevent or treat anemia, says lead author Pirkko Peuranpää, M.D., and should be recommended to women with heavy periods who test positive for a deficiency. (The study also suggests that even if you've started using birth control to keep your periods under control, it can still take months or years for your iron levels to correct themselves.)
The researchers were also surprised that only 8 percent of women diagnosed as anemic at the start of the study had been taking iron supplements. "A possible explanation for low supplementation is that clinicians focus solely on treatment of [heavy menstrual bleeding] itself, and may not pay specific attention to diagnosis and treatment of anemia and iron deficiency," they wrote in the study.
It can't hurt to ask your doc about your iron levels. (Too much iron can be toxic, though, so don't self-diagnose yourself or start taking anything without talking to your physician first.) While the researchers didn't actually test the effect of iron supplementation, the study does suggest that anything a woman can do to treat underlying anemia is likely to improve her health and well-being—not just during her period, but all month long.