Iron deficiency is a common type of anaemia, which is a condition in which your blood lacks an adequate number of healthy red blood cells. You need these red blood cells to carry oxygen to your body’s tissues, so without them your body begins to suffer in a variety of ways. As the name suggests, iron deficiency is simply due to insufficient iron in your diet, meaning your body can’t produce enough of the substance in your red blood cells that enables them to carry oxygen (haemoglobin). Two of the key symptoms you may notice from iron deficiency are that you’re extremely tired and that you get short of breath too easily.
Other iron deficiency symptoms may include:
- Pale skin
- Chest pains or a fast heartbeat
- Headache, dizziness or lightheadedness
- Cold hands and feet
- Inflammation or soreness of your tongue
- Brittle or ‘spoon shaped’ nails
- Unusual cravings for non-nutrition substances, such as ice, dirt or starch
- Poor appetite, especially in infants and children with iron deficiency anaemia
Initially, iron deficiency anaemia can be so mild that it goes unnoticed, and this stage can last for quite some time. However, as the body becomes more deficient in iron and the anaemia worsens, the signs and symptoms (above) intensify until most people would notice that there was something wrong.
How many people have iron deficiency?
4 million people in the UK may be living with iron deficiency anaemia. 1.6 billion people worldwide are anaemic, of which several hundred million manifest iron deficiency anaemia. As such, iron deficiency is the most common cause of anaemia worldwide.
What causes iron deficiency?
Iron deficiency occurs when your body doesn’t have enough iron to produce haemoglobin. Haemoglobin is the part of red blood cells that gives blood its colour and enables the red blood cells to carry oxygenated blood throughout your body. If you aren’t consuming enough iron, or if you’re losing too much iron, then the net result is that your body can’t produce enough haemoglobin, meaning that iron deficiency anaemia will eventually develop if left uncorrected.
The main causes of iron deficiency include:
- Blood loss. Blood contains iron within red blood cells. So if you lose blood, you lose iron. Women with heavy periods are at risk of iron deficiency anaemia because they can lose a lot of blood during their period. Elsewhere, slow, chronic blood loss within the body — perhaps from a peptic ulcer, a colon polyp or even from colorectal cancer — can cause iron deficiency anaemia. Gastrointestinal bleeding can result from the overuse of some over-the-counter pain relievers, especially aspirin, which is why these medications carry such important warning labels.
- Lack of iron in your diet. Your body gets its iron from the foods you eat, providing you’re eating a balanced and healthy diet that is. If you consume too little iron, over time your body will eventually become iron deficient. This is most likely if you are over-reliant on takeaways and junk food rather than cooking or eating a properly balanced meal during the day. There are two types of iron – haem iron found in animal products like meat and eggs, and non-haem iron found in plant foods such as leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, pulses, dried fruits and wholegrains. Unfortunately the haem iron found in animal products has been linked to bowel cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. I therefore recommend obtaining as much iron as possible from plant sources rather than animal sources.
- Inability to absorb iron. Iron from food is absorbed into your bloodstream in your small intestine. A small number of people suffer from an intestinal disorder, known as celiac disease, which affects your intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients from digested food, and can lead to iron deficiency anaemia. Also, if part of your small intestine has been bypassed or removed surgically, that may affect your ability to absorb iron – and other nutrients too.
- Pregnancy. Without iron supplementation, iron deficiency anaemia occurs in many pregnant women because their iron stores are needed to serve their own increased blood volume, as well as being a source of haemoglobin for the growing fetus.
Who has the most risk of developing iron deficiency?
- Women. Because women lose blood during their periods, women in general are at greater risk of iron deficiency anaemia than any other group of individuals. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are also at risk, increasing overall the likelihood that a woman will suffer from iron deficiency at some point in her life.
- Babies and children. Babies, especially those who were very small or born prematurely, may not get enough iron from breast milk and may be at risk of iron deficiency. Children as they age need extra iron during growth spurts. If your child isn’t eating a healthy, varied diet, he or she may be at risk of anaemia and may need to take supplements.
- Frequent blood donors. People who routinely donate blood may have an increased risk of iron deficiency anaemia since blood donation can deplete iron stores. Low haemoglobin related to blood donation may be a temporary problem remedied by eating more iron-rich foods immediately following your donation.
How can I prevent iron deficiency anaemia?
- Treat the causes of blood loss. Talk to your doctor if you have heavy periods or if you have digestive system problems, such as frequent diarrhoea or blood in your stools.
- Eat foods rich in non-haem iron. Excellent sources of include dark green leafy vegetables(eg broccoli, kale, watercress), beans/pulses, nuts, seeds, dried fruits (eg raisins and apricots), blackstrap molasses and wholegrains (eg wholegrain wheat, oats, quinoa, bulgur)
- Eat and drink foods that help your body absorb iron – remember it’s not just about eating it, your body has to absorb it too. Things like orange juice, strawberries, broccoli, and all other fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C.
- Eat healthily. Ditch the takeaways, and start cooking yourself healthy meals from scratch. People who make healthy, balanced food choices get all the iron and vitamins their bodies need from the foods they eat. Avoid drinking coffee or tea with meals. These drinks make it harder for your body to absorb iron and actually block the nutrients from food being absorbed properly.
- Calcium supplements can make it harder for your body to absorb iron. If you need to take these, it is advised not to take them with meals or any iron supplements. Do talk to your doctor if you have concerns about this.
Is there a test for iron deficiency?
A blood test to determine your iron levels is the usual way of checking to see if you’re iron deficient. At Bluecrest Health Screening, we have a number of options to help check your iron levels. From an individual iron deficiency anaemia test at just £29, to full packages of comprehensive health tests from £129, at Bluecrest we’re determined to make preventative health checks both affordable and accessible to everyone in the UK.