Iron-rich diet helps stave off mastitis

An Asian woman came to my Chinese medicine clinic with slight fever, sensation of warmth, a lump in the breast and a mild shooting pain down her right arm.

She also had pale complexion and regularly experienced dizziness and exhaustion. She had mastitis several times since having her first child two years prior and was currently breastfeeding her second baby.

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Although antibiotics resolved the mastitis symptoms with each infection, they did not prevent its reoccurrence and she wanted a solution that would address the root cause.

Mastitis is typically a Staphylococcus aureus bacterial infection of the breast that usually occurs in breastfeeding women and is related to blocked milk ducts.

Her mastitis symptoms cleared within two days after taking a formula of Chinese medicine that included herbs with natural anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties - dandelion plant, honeysuckle flower and burdock fruit.

However, she had a history of chronic iron deficiency as well, a condition where the backup stores of iron in the liver are below normal. It is best checked using a serum ferritin blood test.

This proved to be the root cause of her mastitis. Iron deficiency can often be corrected through an iron-rich diet.

For this woman however, both Chinese herbs and natural western supplements were needed for five months before her iron levels returned to normal and all risk of recurring mastitis disappeared.

The explanation is that breast milk is derived from blood. If the mother's blood is insufficient due to low iron, she will not produce enough milk for her baby.

This insufficiency of milk to fill the ducts then leads to greater susceptibility in contracting bacterial infections through small cracks in the nipple.

This case is not uncommon as women are in the largest of four categories of those who are iron deficient, and include people with:

1. A general need for iron. This includes menstruating women, women planning pregnancy, pregnant or breastfeeding women, teenagers and children between one to four years old because of rapid growth and often lack of iron in their diet.

2. Decreased ability to absorb iron. This includes the elderly because of weakened organ systems, those with low protein intake, and people with frequent digestive problems that result in fast transit time of food causing diarrhea or loose stools, which loses necessary nutrients, including iron.

3. Inadequate iron intake. This includes vegetarians, vegans, people on calorie-restricted diets, the elderly due to decreased intake of food or bad teeth, and people eating mainly breads, dairy or processed foods.

4. Increased loss of iron. This includes women with heavy monthly periods. Typically women lose 50-75 millilitres of blood each month, but in a heavy or prolonged period, a woman can lose up to half a cup (125 millilitres) or more. Blood loss during childbirth is included here. Athletes lose iron through bruising, sweating, and overall need more iron to maintain healthy, active muscles and joints. Those who had surgery or injury also have increased loss of iron.

If you suspect you are in one of these four groups at risk of iron deficiency, have your serum ferritin iron level checked, or visit any one of the 37 registered doctors of traditional Chinese medicine located in Richmond.

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Mee Lain Ling is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

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