Iron Deficiency – Causes, Symptoms And Treatment July 1, 2016

“Eating healthy nutritious food is the simple and right solution to get rid of excess body weight effortlessly and become slim and healthy forever.”―Subodh Gupta, Author of 7 Habits of Skinny Woman

The celebrated author sure knows what he is talking about. Nutrition is the building block of our overall health. We need adequate amounts of vitamin and minerals for our systems to work at the optimum level. With our hectic schedules we may not be able the adequate amounts of these nutrients leading to deficiencies which affect our health. Iron is one such nutrient that is important for our bodies.

Iron and Our Health:

  • Iron is an important mineral that performs several functions in our body; the most important of them being the production of red blood cells which carry oxygen in the body. It also enables our muscles to store and use oxygen.
iron deficiency anemia

Image: Shutterstock

  • Iron is a part of many enzymes and so it helps in the performance of many cell functions. Enzymes facilitate digestion of foods and other important reactions that occur within our body.

Iron is therefore vital for your body and you should get the recommended dosage given below from your daily diet.

Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron by age and sex.
Age/GroupLife StageIron (mg/day)
Infants0–6 months0.27*
7–12 months11
Children1–3 years7
4–8 years10
Males9–13 years8
14–18 years11
19–30 years8
31–50 years8
51–70 years8
>70 years8
Females9–13 years8
14–18 years15
19–30 years18
31–50 years18
51–70 years8
>70 years8
Pregnant Women14–18 years27
19–30 years27
31–50 years27
Lactating Women14–18 years10
19–30 years9
31–50 years9

Women who experience heavy flow during their monthly period (heavy periods) should take iron supplements to get the recommended dosage.

Iron Deficiency:

Iron deficiency is also known as anaemia or iron deficiency anaemia. This condition is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies, particularly in children and pre-menopausal women. This condition is characterized by the depletion of the body’s stores of iron and inability of the body to maintain normal levels of haemoglobin in the blood.

Haemoglobin is a substance that is present in red blood cells that enable them to carry oxygen throughout the body. Lack of sufficient iron makes the body unable to produce enough haemoglobin. This results in functional and health impairment which adversely affects the functioning of several organ systems.

Causes of Iron Deficiency:

The causes revolve around insufficient consumption of iron or losing too much iron. In both the cases, your body is unable to produce enough haemoglobin. Some of the most common iron deficiency causes are as follows.

1. Increased Iron Needs:

There are certain conditions under which people need additional amounts of iron

  • Infants and toddlers have greater iron needs in comparison to older children as they are in the rapid growth phase and at times it becomes difficult for them to get enough iron from their normal diet.
  • Pregnant women need more iron because their iron sources need to serve their own increased blood volume as well as provide haemoglobin for the growing foetus.

2. Loss of Blood:

When people lose blood, they also lose iron as blood contains iron within the red blood cells. So they need extra iron to replace the lost iron.

  • Women with heavy periods are more likely to suffer from iron deficiency anaemia as they lose blood during menstruation.
  • Certain ailments like peptic ulcer, hiatal hernia, a colon polyp or colorectal cancer also cause slow chronic blood loss within the body, resulting in iron deficiency.
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding due to regular use of some over the counter pain relievers such as aspirin can also cause anaemia. Internal bleeding is the most common cause of iron deficiency in men and postmenopausal women.

3. Lack of Iron in Diet:

The iron needed by our bodies is mostly obtained from the foods that we eat. Consumption of too low a dose of iron over time can lead to iron deficiency. Iron-rich foods include meat, leafy vegetables, eggs and iron-fortified foods. Infants and children also need iron from their diet for their proper growth and development.

4. Mal-absorption of Iron:

Besides consumption, iron from food should be absorbed into your bloodstream in your small intestine. Celiac disease is an intestinal disorder that affects your intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients from digested food, thus causing iron deficiency. Absorption of iron is also affected if part of your intestine has been bypassed or removed surgically. The amount of iron absorbed from foods depends upon other factors given below.

Iron from animal sources like meat, chicken and fish is heme iron which can be absorbed 2 to 3 times more efficiently than non-heme iron from plants.

Absorption of non-heme iron from plant foods depends upon the other types of foods eaten with them. For instance, foods like meat, chicken and fish which contain heme iron increase absorption from foods containing non-heme iron such as fortified cereals, spinach and certain beans. Foods containing vitamin C can also enhance the absorption of non-heme iron when eaten at the same meal.

Substances like polyphenols, phytates or calcium which are found in some foods or drinks such as tea, coffee, whole grains, legumes, milk and dairy products can decrease the absorption of non-heme iron.

[ Read: Healthy Foods For Toddlers ]

Victims of Iron Deficiency:

Though anyone can suffer from iron deficiency, certain people are at greater risk. Since the risk is high their needs for iron is greater than others.

1. Women:

Women lose blood during menstruation and so they are at a greater risk of suffering from anaemia. Pregnant women can also get this deficiency because of high iron requirement.

2. Infants and Children:

Infants, particularly those with low birth-weight or born prematurely, do not get enough iron from breast milk or formula and so they are at a higher risk of iron deficiency. Children need extra iron during growth phase. Children with special health needs such as those with chronic infections or restricted diet are also at risk.

3. Vegetarians:

Those who do not eat meat are at a higher risk of iron deficiency. As stated earlier, plants contain non-heme iron which needs to be supplemented with other sources of heme iron like meat, fish and eggs to facilitate their absorption.

4. Frequent Blood Donors:

Those who donate blood frequently are at an increased risk of iron deficiency as their iron stores get depleted due to blood donation. Low haemoglobin caused by blood donation is, however, a temporary problem which can be cured by eating iron rich foods.

Iron Deficiency Symptoms:

Inadequate levels of iron can impair body functions. Most physical signs and symptoms do not show up as they are mild. You can notice them only when your anaemia gets worse. The symptoms are not visible during the early stages of iron deficiency. A person having iron deficiency may have the following symptoms.

  • Tiredness and weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pale skin
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • Slow cognitive and social development during childhood
  • Coldness in hands and feet
  • Difficulty in maintenance of body temperature
  • Slow immune function which increases susceptibility to infection
  • Glossitis (inflamed tongue)
  • Symptoms in infants and children:-
  • Fussy behaviour
  • Short attention span
  • Slow growth and development
  • Poor appetite
  • Delayed development of skills like walking and talking

Iron Deficiency Diseases:

Iron deficiency is a serious condition which, if taken lightly, can lead to long term health issues. Mild deficiency of iron causes no severe complications, but when left untreated, it can lead to the following health issues.

iron deficiency anemia

Image: Shutterstock

1. Anaemia:

Severe deficiency of iron can cause anaemia due to the disruption of the normal lifespan of a red blood cell. In this condition, haemoglobin levels are so low that the blood is unable to enough oxygen to the cells, thus affecting the entire body. Symptoms of anaemia include looking very pale, breathlessness, dizziness and fatigue. It also results in reduced immune function and impaired growth and cognition.

2. Heart Ailments:

Deficiency of iron can lead to rapid or irregular heartbeat. When you are anaemic, your heart is required to pump more blood to compensate for the lack of oxygen carried in your blood. This can cause enlarged heart or heart failure.

3. Inadequate Growth:

Severe deficiency of iron can lead to delayed growth and development in infants and children. It is also associated with increased susceptibility to develop infections.

4. Complications in Pregnancy:

Pregnant women are at a higher risk of iron deficiency. It can lead to premature births and babies with low birth-weight. This condition can be easily prevented during pregnancy by taking iron supplements as part of prenatal care.

5. Colon Cancer:

Iron deficiency is one of the causes of colon cancer. A research conducted on 628, 882 patients of 40 years of age and above indicated that 3.1% or 19, 349 patients had iron deficiency anaemia. Thus, those suffering from iron deficiency are at a greater risk of developing colon cancer.

6. Fatigue:

Iron deficiency can result in fatigue. It is characterized by depression and lack of sleep. Hence, iron deficiency should be recognized and treated to prevent fatigue.

[ Read: Nutritionists In India ]

Treatment of Iron Deficiency:

Iron deficiency should not be ignored as it can lead to several health problems. Proper diagnosis and treatment of this problem is important before the condition worsens. Iron deficiency can be easily diagnosed by taking a haemoglobin test which measures haemoglobin or haematocrit test which measures the percentage of red blood cells in your blood by volume.

Reduction in haemoglobin and haematocrit levels indicates a serious deficiency of iron. Treatment of iron deficiency depends upon other factors such as your age, health and cause of iron deficiency. Some of the ways of treating iron deficiency are given below.

1. Consumption of Iron Rich Foods:

Mild deficiency of iron can be cured by including iron rich foods in your diet. The iron from animal sources like meat, poultry and eggs is more easily absorbed by your body. If you are a vegetarian, you need to increase your intake of iron-rich plant-based foods to absorb the same amount of iron as the plant sources. The list given below shows the sources of heme and non-heme iron.

Abstract: sources of heme iron
FoodServing SizeIron% Guideline
clam100g28 mg155%
pork liver100g18 mg100%
lamb kidney100g12 mg69%
cooked oyster100g12 mg67%
cuttlefish100g11 mg60%
lamb liver100g10 mg57%
octopus100g9.5 mg53%
mussel100g6.7 mg37%
beef liver100g6.5 mg36%
beef heart100g6.4 mg35%
Abstract: sources of non-heme iron
FoodServing SizeIron% Guideline
soybeans250ml9.3 mg52%
raw yellow beans100g7 mg39%
lentils250ml7 mg39%
falafel140g4.8 mg27%
soybean kernels250ml4.7 mg26%
toasted sesame seeds30g4.4 mg25%
spirulina15g4.3 mg24%
candied ginger root30g3.4 mg19%
spinach85g3 mg17%

 2. Iron Supplements:

Iron supplements such as iron tablets and capsules are often recommended by the doctors to replenish the iron stores in your body. To facilitate better absorption of iron in the tablets, it is beneficial to take them on an empty stomach. Since these tablets can upset your stomach, it is often recommended to take them with meals.

3. Consumption of Foods Rich in Vitamin C:

Vitamin C enhances the body’s absorption of iron. It is advisable to drink citrus juice or other foods rich in vitamin C at the same time when you eat high iron foods. Citrus juices like orange juice or lemon juice contain vitamin C which helps your body to better absorb dietary iron. Iron supplements should also be taken with a glass of citrus juice or vitamin C supplement for better absorption.

4. Treatment of Underlying Causes of Iron Deficiency:

If the iron supplements fail to increase your blood iron levels, the deficiency is due to a source of bleeding or iron absorption problem which needs to be diagnosed and treated. Treatment of the underlying causes of deficiency involves the following.

  • Medications such as oral contraceptives to lessen heavy menstrual flow
  • Antibiotics and other medications for the treatment of peptic ulcers
  • Surgery for removal of a tumour, bleeding polyp or fibroid

5. Treatment of Iron Deficiency in Infants:

Apart from the supplements recommended by the doctor, babies should be fed with breast-milk or iron-fortified formula in the first year. Cow’s milk is not a good source of iron and so it should not be given to infants below the age of one year. Iron from breast milk can be more easily absorbed than the iron found in formula.

Iron deficiency cannot be cured overnight. If your deficiency is severe, it can take several months or even longer to replenish your reserves. Besides ingesting iron in the form of supplements, it is advisable to incorporate dietary changes i.e. consume iron rich foods. So don’t become iron deficient, follow these tips to avoid any complications. Stay fit, stay healthy!

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