UNTIL a couple of years ago, Cork woman Erica Bracken thought fatigue was just a normal part of being an adult in an overly committed and stimulated world.
She was plagued by a cloud of exhaustion, brain fog, and lack of energy, and constantly picking up coughs, colds and every other bug that was going.
The 29-year-old was eventually diagnosed with seriously low iron levels, and now she wants all women (and men) to know what to look out for to avoid finding themselves in the same debilitating position.
“Iron is such an essential mineral but it’s generally only something we hear about when you’re at the anaemic end of the scale,” said Erica, from Glenville.
In hindsight, the PR and marketing consultant was, without realising it, the perfect candidate to suffer from low iron.
She was exclusively vegetarian and didn’t realise that iron from food comes in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme is found only in animal flesh like meat, poultry, and seafood. Non-heme iron is found in plant foods like whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and leafy greens.
“The body finds it hard to absorb non-heme unless you eat it with vitamin C. Also, coffee and tea inhibit absorption, so really I was swimming upstream the entire time.”
Simply through menstruating, she was further zapping her iron stores by up to 250mg with every monthly period, and at the time she was also battling an eating disorder.
“Because I wasn’t eating enough, I would have really struggled through diet alone to maintain adequate levels of iron,” she said.
Erica’s been fully recovered from the eating disorder for the past six years, but at its peak, she was ‘punishing’ her body by routinely running 10km followed by a spinning class, and under-eating.
The disorder began when she was around 21 and continued when she moved to Dublin the following year: “I think, for me, it was about dealing with a period of transition in my life, and also my personality type.
“I had just graduated in Law from UCC and was doing a Masters in Food Business. Controlling my food and my body was my way of dealing with the lack of control in the rest of my life.
“I knew I could make myself run more and do more spin classes and I realised I was good at it. Then I started getting compliments about how I looked and it doesn’t really take too long to get to the point where you lose too much weight, even if it takes years to get back into a good space,” she said.
Erica said she was fortunate to be able to attend a psychotherapist where she began her ‘long road to recovery’. That included one-on-one sessions for two years, followed by group sessions, and now she checks in perhaps just a few times a year if she encounters a ‘wobble’.
“I soon found out that food is only the symptom of what’s happening,” she said.
“In that peak phase, I’d have obsessively weighed myself, but I could not tell you what weight I am now. I used to keep a food diary and reading back on it, it’s like reading somebody else’s handwriting. My mind and body were so disengaged.
"I was running purely on mental strength. My body was still going, but it was so wrecked. I really feel sorry for that person, it was such a dark time, and a lonely and sad place to be.”
Erica said she was really lucky to have the support of her family and friends throughout it all: “They were very supportive and understood it wasn’t the real me, that I was struggling with an eating disorder, and that I wasn’t the eating disorder.
“I also had to learn to distinguish between the voice of the eating disorder and my own voice, the one that would say ‘I’m hungry, I’d like to rest,’ and the one that would say ‘No, that’s too much food, you need to go for a run’.”
Erica no longer uses food to ‘self-soothe,’ but turns to yoga or meditation. She’s practiced yoga since 2013 as part of her recovery journey and is now a trained yoga teacher and is motivated to ensure other women, and men, are educated on iron levels.
“I grasped my recovery and used it as a chance for personal development,” she said.
“I, for one, didn’t know that women of childbearing age need two to three times more iron than men, and women with periods, or pregnant/post partum women need even more.
“So many women out there are feeling tired, sluggish and just not themselves. This is the expected norm for many – but it shouldn’t be! For example, a shocking 54% of women admit they put up with feeling ill during their menstrual cycle because ‘it’s just part of being a woman’.
“But this is often simply down to the blood lost and we don’t have to feel this way. It’s really empowering to learn that these might be the symptoms of iron loss, and that you can regain energy simply by supplementing with iron.”
It took Erica some time to find a solution that worked for her.
“After I visited my GP, he prescribed an iron supplement. I tried this and many different varieties after it, but each one came with a slew of unpleasant side effects. Some irritated my stomach, made me nauseous or gave me constipation. One liquid iron supplement I tried even stained my teeth. Grey teeth was not a good look!
“Then I came across an Irish-made iron supplement, Active Iron. By taking just one tablet a day, pretty soon I started to feel more like myself. The cloud of fatigue that I had been struggling through for so long faded away and I could get back to doing the things I loved. I couldn’t believe how effective Active Iron was, and for me it had zero side effects.
“I’ve fully recovered from my eating disorder, and I’ve been consistently taking Active Iron for the past couple of years. I haven’t felt that consistent level of fatigue that once plagued me since.”
Erica moved back to Cork at the beginning of the pandemic, having lived in Dublin for six years.
“My plan to stay for three weeks was extended to three months and I find myself still here, almost two years later! I had no plans prior to the pandemic to move home to Cork, I didn’t think it was an option. I assumed that I had to live in Dublin for work opportunities, but the past two years has shown us we can live and work from anywhere. I was working with a marketing firm up to March last year when I decided to make the jump to freelance.
“I’m loving this rare opportunity to live in the countryside and to spend so much time with my parents and the rest of my family.”