Iron deficiency anemia is a condition that develops when the body does not have enough iron, which is essential because it produces hemoglobin, a part of red blood cells responsible for transporting oxygen. Anemia occurs when the body produces low red blood cell counts and cannot get an adequate supply of oxygen. Iron deficiency can be mild and go unnoticed for a while, but symptoms may intensify as the body becomes more deficient.
What Causes Iron Deficiency?
The following are some of the most common causes of iron deficiency.
Low iron in women can be caused by heavy menstrual bleeding, which occurs when a woman bleeds more or longer than the average. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, typical menstrual bleeding lasts for four to five days—women with excessive menstrual bleeding bleed for more than seven days and lose twice as much blood. Excess bleeding can be caused by fibroids, which occur when muscular tumors grow in the uterus. Fibroids are not cancerous, but they can lead to iron deficiency anemia.
Pregnant women are at higher risk of developing iron deficiency anemia because they require extra blood to support their babies—the iron stored in a red blood cell protein called ferritin is needed to serve the increased blood volume and also be a source of hemoglobin for the fetus. Infants, especially those who were low birth weight or born prematurely, who are not provided with enough iron from breast milk or formula may be at risk of iron deficiency.
Certain conditions can cause internal bleeding and lead to iron deficiency anemia. These diseases include stomach ulcers, polyps in the colon or intestines, colon cancer, and regular use of pain relievers, such as aspirin.
Diet Low in Iron
Our bodies get iron from the foods we eat, and we need to make sure we eat iron-rich foods to avoid anemia. Examples of iron-rich foods include animal products such as meat and eggs, which are also rich in amino acids, and leafy green vegetables, such as spinach. If your diet does not include animal products, you may have a greater risk of iron deficiency anemia.
Inability to Absorb Iron
The iron we get from the food we eat is absorbed into the bloodstream in the small intestine. Intestinal disorders, such as celiac disease, affect the intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients from digested food and can cause iron deficiency anemia.
Regular Blood Donation
People who donate blood regularly may be at risk of developing iron deficiency anemia because blood donation can diminish iron stores. Low iron related to blood donation may be a temporary problem, and it can be solved by eating more iron-rich foods.
Iron Deficiency Anemia Treatments
It is important to mention that our bodies absorb more iron from meat, so if your diet does not include meat, we recommend that you increase your intake of iron-rich, plant-based foods to make sure you absorb an adequate amount of iron.
Vitamin C can enhance iron absorption, so drinking citrus juice or eating other foods rich in vitamin C is an excellent habit.
Over-the-counter iron supplements can help replenish iron stores in the body. If prescribed, your doctor will tell you the correct dose and give you instructions. Common practices include taking iron tablets on an empty stomach, not taking iron with antacids, or taking iron tablets two hours before or four hours after antacid intake, and taking iron with vitamin C, which improves the absorption of iron.
Iron supplements can cause constipation, so your doctor may also recommend a stool softener. You may need to take iron supplements for several months or longer to see significant changes in your condition, but you should start to feel better after a week or so.
Treating the Main Cause of Iron Deficiency
If diet and supplements do not ease the symptoms, it means that the anemia is due to a specific source of bleeding and the doctor needs to investigate further. Depending on the cause, iron deficiency anemia treatment may involve medications, such as oral contraceptives, for women, to lighten heavy menstrual flow, antibiotics and other medications to treat peptic ulcers, or surgery to remove a bleeding polyp, a tumor or a fibroid. If iron deficiency is severe, blood transfusions may be performed.