What is Iron Deficiency?
Iron is essential in making hemoglobin, part of red blood cells that helps carry oxygen throughout the body. Iron is also vital for a fully functioning immune system. Iron is mostly stored in the body in the hemoglobin. About one-third of iron is stored as ferritin and hemosiderin in the bone marrow, spleen, and liver. If your iron levels are too high or too low, they can cause serious health problems. The most common disorder due to iron deficiency is anemia.1 2
Iron deficiency anemia is a blood disorder that affects your red blood cells and is the most common cause of anemia worldwide. It’s the most common form of anemia and happens when your body doesn’t have enough iron to make hemoglobin.3
Why do people have it?
People can develop iron deficiency anemia because they don’t get enough iron from food, lose blood, or have conditions that limit the amount of iron their bodies absorb. Some common reasons include3:
● Low iron in diet over a period of time can result in iron deficiency
● Blood loss due to menstruation or during childbirth
● Heavy menstrual bleeding or blood loss during childbirth can lead to a deficiency of iron
● Internal bleeding (can occur due to certain medical conditions like ulcers, polyps, colon cancer, etc.)
● Inability to absorb iron (certain disorders such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, or surgery affecting the intestine may lead to inability in iron absorption)
● Certain medications
Symptoms and future effects
Iron deficiency symptoms develop over time and may initially be mild but can worsen over time if not treated. Iron deficiency anemia can make you feel tired, weak, and lack energy. You may notice pale skin and cold hands and feet. Iron deficiency anemia can also cause you to feel dizzy or lightheaded. Occasionally, it can cause chest pain, a fast heartbeat, and shortness of breath. Iron deficiency can cause you to have unusual cravings for non-food items such as ice, dirt, or paper and may also cause hair loss and brittle nails. Infants and children may become anemic, and development might also be delayed.3
How can we combat Iron Deficiency?
When iron deficiency is suspected, healthcare providers will also ask questions and do tests to determine why you developed iron deficiency. Iron deficiency anemia is diagnosed with blood tests; all or some of the following tests may be performed3:
● Check red blood cells in the blood under a microscope. If you have iron-deficiency anemia, your red blood cells will be pale instead of bright red and smaller than usual.
● Measure iron levels in your blood.
● Measure the amount of transferrin in your blood. Transferrin is the protein that carries iron.
● Measure the amount of ferritin in your blood. Ferritin is a protein that stores iron.
● A colonoscopy (examination of the inner large intestine/colon) or other testing may be recommended to determine why your iron is low.
Peripheral Blood Smear4
Iron is not made in the body and must be absorbed from what you eat, so try eating foods rich in iron if your iron levels are low. There are two types of iron in foods: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is found in red meat, poultry, and pork and is most easily absorbed by your body. Non-heme iron is not as easily absorbed by your body but is still a good source of iron and essential if you don’t eat meat. Foods high in this type of iron include greens, breakfast cereals fortified by iron, bread and pasta, tofu, beans, dried fruits, and eggs.1
Iron deficiency can be treated with iron supplements, which are available as pills and injections. The healthcare provider will try to identify why you are low in iron. Most of the time, people have iron-deficiency anemia because they’re losing blood or not absorbing iron in their diet. Healthcare providers treat iron-deficiency anemia by diagnosing and, if possible, treating the underlying cause while treating the iron deficiency.3
1“The Importance of Iron in Your Body.” American Red Cross, 11 Nov. 2021, www.redcrossblood.org/local-homepage/news/article/iron-in-blood.html#SnippetTab.
2“Iron-Deficiency Anemia.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, 20 July 2020, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/irondeficiency-anemia.
3Cleveland Clinic Medical Professional. “Iron-Deficiency Anemia: Symptoms, Treatments & Causes.” Cleveland Clinic, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22824-iron-deficiency-anemia.
4Warner, Matthew, and Muhammad Kamran. “Iron Deficiency Anemia – Statpearls – NCBI Bookshelf.” National Library of Medicine, 7 Aug. 2023, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448065/.