What is iron and why we need it in the body?

Iron is necessary for haemoglobin production in the body. Haemoglobin is essential to carry oxygen around the body to help with energy production. Prolonged iron deficiency leads to fewer healthy red blood cells being produced in the body. This leads to the development of iron- deficiency anaemia.  Leaving iron-deficiency anaemia untreated can lead to higher risk of contracting infections and getting ill because iron is important for the functioning of the immune system.


Signs and symptoms of iron deficiency

Mild iron deficiency can go unnoticed for a long time while more advanced iron deficiency can lead to many health problems.

 Insufficient dietary intake of iron or chronic blood loss are the main two causes of iron deficiency.  

The following groups may have an increased risk of developing iron-deficiency anaemia:

  • women with heavy menstrual cycle bleeding
  • people with occult (hidden) blood loss from the intestine
  • low birth infants who don’t get enough iron from breast milk or formula milk
  • children who are not eating a  varied diet
  • strict vegans and vegetarians
  • frequent blood donors

The most common symptom is feeling tired due to lack of oxygen being carried to the body parts.

Other common signs and symptoms are:

Headaches, weakness, chest pains, shortness of breath, dizziness, pale skin, loss of appetite, restless legs syndrome, brittle nails and hair loss.

Iron deficiency anaemia in children can result in loss of appetite, slower growth development and behavioural problems.


Treating iron deficiency

 There are two forms of iron:  Haem iron and non-haem. Haem iron is found in animal products such as meats, poultry and fish. It has higher bioavailability and an absorption rate of around 20-30%. Non-haem forms of iron are plant based and mainly found in pulses, cereals, vegetables, beans and fruits. Even though a greater abundance of dietary iron comes from plant sources, non-haem iron is absorbed at 1-10% only.

Treating iron deficiency can be as simple as adapting a healthier iron rich diet which consists of eating green leafy vegetables , iron fortified cereal products, white and red meat, fish, eggs tofu, pulses and nuts, seeds and dried fruits. Vitamin C helps the body to absorb iron therefore consuming foods and drinks rich in vitamin C in addition to foods rich in iron can aid recovery.

 Often supplements such as ferrous sulphate or ferrous gluconate can be prescribed by your GP to replenish body iron stores.

 It is important to be aware that tannins found in coffee and tea, calcium found in dairy products, certain medication for indigestion and foods containing phytic acid can interfere with iron absorption in the body.

 In severe persistent iron-deficiency anaemia cases your GP may investigate to ensure there are no other underlying health causes that require treatment. For this reason it is important that you see your GP or regular medical practitioner to discuss your symptoms if, having read this article, you feel you may have iron deficiency anaemia.



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