Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional disorder affecting about 20-25% of the world’s population, predominantly children and women.
Iron deficiency occurs when your body doesn’t have enough of the mineral iron.Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that enables them to carry oxygen around the body.If your body doesn’t have enough hemoglobin, your tissues and muscles won’t get enough oxygen to be able to work effectively. This leads to a condition called anemia.
Although there are different types of anemia, iron deficiency anemia is the most common worldwide.
Common causes of iron deficiency include:
- inadequate iron intake due to a diet that doesn’t provide the daily nutritional needs or that’s heavily restricted
- inflammatory bowel disease
- increased iron requirements during pregnancy
- blood loss through heavy periods or internal bleeding
- exercise – athletes are prone to iron deficiency because regular exercise increases the body’s need for iron in several ways
Although the effects of iron-deficiency anaemia are well characterized, emerging evidence suggests that iron deficiency without anaemia can have negative consequences in adults, particularly for neurocognitive outcomes.
Iron-deficiency anemia often develops slowly.
Signs and symptoms of iron deficiency
Signs and symptoms of iron deficiency vary depending on:
- the severity of the anemia
- how quickly it develops
- your age
- your current state of health
In some cases, people experience no symptoms.
In the beginning, you may not have any symptoms, or they may be mild. As it gets worse, you may notice one or more of these symptoms:
- Fatigue (very common)
- Weakness (very common)
- Low body temperature
- Pale or yellow “sallow” skin
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath or chest pain, especially with physical activity
- Brittle nails/ dry damaged hair
- Swelling of tongue/ mouth sore
- Pica (unusual cravings for ice, very cold drinks, or non-food items like dirt or paper
- Cold hands and feet
Stages and symptoms of iron deficiency
Most of your body’s iron is in the haemoglobin of your red blood cells, which carry oxygen to your body. Extra iron is stored in your liver and is used by your body when your dietary intake is too low.
If you don’t have enough iron in your diet, your body’s iron stores get lower over time.
This can cause:
- iron depletion – when haemoglobin levels are normal, but your body only has a small amount of stored iron, which will soon run out. This stage usually has no obvious symptoms
- iron deficiency – when your stored and blood-borne iron levels are low and your haemoglobin levels have dropped below normal. You may experience some symptoms, including tiredness
- iron deficiency anaemia – when your haemoglobin levels are so low that your blood is unable to deliver enough oxygen to your cells. Symptoms include looking very pale, breathlessness, dizziness and fatigue. People with iron deficiency anaemia may also have reduced immune function, so they are more vulnerable to infection. In children, iron deficiency anaemia can affect growth and brain development.
Try to ensure you’re getting enough iron through real food in your diet. Only take supplements if your doctor recommends them.
Foods rich in iron include:
- Red meat, pork and poultry
- Dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach
- Dried fruit, such as raisins and apricots
- Iron-fortified cereals, breads and pastas
Your body absorbs more iron from meat than it does from plant sources. If you choose to not eat meat, you may need to increase your intake of iron-rich, plant-based foods to absorb the same amount of iron as does someone who eats meat.
If you think you’re showing signs or symptoms of iron deficiency, you should make an appointment to see your doctor.A simple blood test can confirm whether you have iron deficiency anemia.
If your doctor confirms you have iron deficiency, generally it’s fairly easy to treat. Your doctor will likely recommend increasing your intake of iron from your diet or with iron supplements.
Since iron supplements are available without prescription, it can be tempting to self-diagnose, but this is not recommended because:
- Having too much iron in the body can be toxic and even fatal.
- Fatigue, paleness, dizziness and breathlessness are symptoms of many other health conditions, not just iron deficiency anaemia. Some of these other conditions are serious.
- Taking an iron supplement when you don’t need it can interfere with your body’s absorption of other minerals, including zinc and copper.
- Doses of iron prescribed for iron deficiency anaemia in adults can cause constipation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, especially if supplements are taken on an empty stomach.
- About one in 300 people have haemochromatosis, which is an inherited genetic condition that prompts the body to absorb more iron than usual. Excess iron damages the body’s organs like the liver and increases the risk of cancers and heart disease. People with haemochromatosis need to limit how much iron they consume.
Iron overdose happens when you take too much iron in the form of supplements. Iron is toxic in large amounts and can be fatal at high doses therefore do not take iron supplements without talking to your doctor first.
If you think you may be suffering from iron deficiency, do see our doctor and get treated.
Iron Deficiency Test & Treatment is available in our clinics.