- When you are iron deficient you don’t have enough red blood cells to transport adequate amounts of oxygen throughout your body and you can develop a condition called anemia.
- Some of the leading causes of iron deficiency are gastrointestinal bleeding from conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, heavy menstrual bleeding, and pregnancy.
- This article was medically reviewed by Melissa Rifkin, MS, RD, CDN, owner of Melissa Rifkin Nutrition LLC.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
An estimated 10 million people in the US are iron deficient. But if you’re one of them, you may not realise you have an issue right away. This is because the symptoms of iron deficiency, like fatigue and headaches, are similar to other chronic illnesses.
Iron deficiency anemia
Your body needs iron to make a protein called hemoglobin, which is found in your red blood cells. When you are iron deficient, your red blood cell count drops, and it becomes harder for your blood to carry oxygen throughout your body to muscles and tissues.
When red blood cells aren’t able to carry adequate amounts of oxygen, you develop a condition called anemia. Symptoms of anemia include paleness, headaches, dizziness, weakness, and shortness of breath, says Brian B. Scott, MD, a retired gastroenterologist of Lincoln County Hospital in the UK.
Because blood is rich in iron, conditions that make you lose blood can put you at risk for iron deficiency. Here are some of the most common conditions that can cause low iron levels.
Gastrointestinal bleedingand medication. One of the leading causes of anemia due to iron deficiency is blood loss from gastrointestinal diseases like inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or colon cancer.
These conditions can not only make it harder for your body to absorb nutrients like iron but when diseases like IBD are not managed correctly, bleeding in your stomach or intestine could occur which may lead to low iron levels. In fact, an estimated 29% of people with Crohn’s disease and 17% of people with ulcerative colitis – both IBD conditions – suffer from anemia. Colon cancer can also put you at risk for iron deficiency, as tumours in your bowel can cause excess bleeding, says Scott.
If you take aspirin or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen on a daily basis, you may also be at risk for stomach bleeding and iron deficiency over time, Scott says. This is because drugs like aspirin can irritate the lining of your stomach and reduce your blood’s ability to clot and stop bleeding.
Heavymenstrual bleeding. Over 10 million women in the US experience heavy menstrual bleeding, which is one of the most common causes of iron deficiency. Having heavy periods is relatively common, but menorrhagia, a condition involving abnormally heavy bleeding, can put you at risk for anemia because of the large amount of iron that is lost in blood.
It’s hard to define exactly what counts as a “heavy period,” but if you need to change your tampon or pad every hour, this is a sign that your bleeding is unusually heavy. Large blood clots, constant pelvic pain, and a period that lasts longer than 7 days are also signs of menorrhagia.
Pregnantwomen require more iron. If you are pregnant, you may be at greater risk for iron deficiency or anemia, Scott says. “The iron deficiency in pregnancy is mainly due to the extra demands for iron by the developing baby,” Scott says. Low iron levels can be harmful to both you and your baby and if you don’t get enough iron while pregnant, you may also be at risk of premature delivery.
Pregnant women need to get 27 milligrams of iron per day, and the need is highest around the time of birth. This is a 33% increase compared to the requirement for adult women who aren’t pregnant – about 18 milligrams per day.
reduces the chance of anemia
If you have severe iron deficiency or anemia, your doctor may prescribe daily iron supplements. If your deficiency is milder, you may be able to raise your iron levels just by changing your diet.
What you eat makes a big difference in your risk for iron deficiency and vegetarians and vegans may be at greater risk for low iron, says Scott.
“Meat is the best source of dietary iron,” Scott says, but adds that, “nuts, dried fruit and vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage can also correct mild iron deficiency.”
Additionally, legumes, like beans, can be a good source of iron, and you can maximise your iron absorption by consuming foods rich in vitamin C at the same time you take an iron supplement or consume iron-rich foods. Try taking an iron supplement with a glass of orange juice or have some melon along with nuts as a snack.
For information on how much iron is in the food you eat, check out the FDA’s database on food nutrition. The daily recommended dose of iron for the average adult male is 8 milligrams per day whereas for women it’s 18 milligrams per day.
- How often should you take probiotics? What researchers know so far
- What is the difference between veganism and vegetarianism? The health benefits and downsides of each
- What is the difference between the keto diet and the Atkins diet? A comparison guide
- What is a vegan diet? A guide for getting enough nutrients
- How to get protein as a vegan from fresh, whole foods