Did you know that iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency disorder in the world? The anemia associated with this fact is called iron deficiency anemia (IDA)—it occurs when the body does not have enough iron. Anemia from iron deficiency can affect people of all ages, so knowing what to look for and when to see your healthcare professional is important.
First, it’s important to understand that iron is critical to human health. Iron is required for the production of hemoglobin, which is the part of red blood cells responsible for bringing oxygen from the lungs to the body’s cells. In fact, most of the body’s iron is found in hemoglobin, which explains iron’s key role in promoting life and supporting health.
Iron also plays a key role in many other functions in the body such as serving as an essential component of hundreds of proteins and enzymes including those needed for energy production, metabolism, growth and normal cellular functioning. Iron is also necessary for your immune and nervous systems to function properly. Iron becomes even more important during pregnancy and early child development.
IDA occurs when there is inadequate iron to support normal red blood cell production in the body and is characterized by smaller than normal red blood cells (aka microcytic) and lower than normal hemoglobin content in the red blood cells (aka hypochromic). IDA is also referred to as a microcytichypochromic anemia. And this means that the body is not getting adequate amounts of oxygen to sustain normal functioning.
Signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia can include the following:
Feeling tired or weak
Shortness of breath
Rapid heart rate/palpitations
Having trouble concentrating
Upward curvature or spooning of fingernails
Cravings for and consumption of substances that have no nutritional value (such as dirt, ice, paint, paper, etc.)—this may be a sign of a condition called pica and should be a signal to see your healthcare provider and get tested for anemia
If you think you are experiencing the signs and symptoms of IDA, see a doctor for an evaluation. Your doctor may order blood tests and evaluate your medical history. Once diagnosed, he or she will find out what is causing the anemia.
IDA can be caused by insufficient iron in the diet or inability to absorb iron in the gut due to intestinal issues (e.g., ulcerative colitis, celiac disease), chronic bleeding (such as from a stomach ulcer), large blood losses (such as from heavy menstruation), and pregnancy.
Who Is at Risk for IDA?
The groups most at risk for IDA include:
Women who regularly experience heavy menstruation
Pregnant women: Iron requirements during pregnancy are almost twice that of non-pregnant women to support an increased blood volume, to supply the baby with the iron needed for growth in utero and for the first 6 months of life, and lastly, to account for blood loss during delivery
Infants and young children: Pre-term or low birth-weight infants are especially at risk
Frequent blood donors
Individuals with medical conditions of the gastrointestinal tract (e.g., peptic ulcers, ulcerative colitis)
People with poor dietary intake or those following strict vegetarian/vegan diets
How Is IDA Managed?
Once diagnosed, an iron-rich diet and iron supplements can help to address most cases of mild to moderate IDA:
Diet: Consuming foods such as meats, poultry, and seafood provide a form of iron more readily available for absorption in the body (also called heme iron). Other sources of iron (considered non-heme iron) to include in the diet are: leafy green vegetables, legumes (beans), and iron-enriched grains and cereals. Pairing the latter with foods rich in vitamin C (e.g., oranges, strawberries, broccoli, peppers, and tomatoes, among others) helps to increase iron uptake by the body.
Iron Supplements: Your doctor will likely also prescribe iron supplements to increase your iron intake. The amount of iron supplementation needed varies by individual and thus it is important that you follow your doctor’s instructions. Keep in mind that supplemental iron prescribed for iron deficiency anemia has the potential to cause some gastrointestinal discomfort such as nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, dark colored stools, and/or abdominal distress. You can help to combat these effects by taking iron with food, splitting the dose up during the day, and consuming adequate fiber and fluid intake to prevent constipation.
Keep in mind that there are many other kinds of anemias in addition to iron deficiency anemia. It is always best to consult with your doctor for the appropriate tests to diagnose the condition and help determine your treatment plan.
Alpa V. Shah, MS, RD, CDE is a Senior Medical Manager, US Dietary Supplements, Global Medical Affairs at Pfizer