Iron is an essential element which is not made by the body. Our bodies rely on the food we eat for a healthy supply of iron.
Iron is needed for the production of blood. About 70% of the body’s iron is found in the red blood cells, where it is called hemoglobin, and in the muscles, where it is called myoglobin.
Hemoglobin is the part of the red blood cell that gives blood its red colour. hemoglobin is necessary for the transportation of oxygen from the lungs to the tissues, while myoglobin accepts, stores, transports and releases oxygen.
About 25% of the iron in the body is stored as ferritin. This is found in the cells and circulating in the blood. Men have about three times more stored iron than women do. If the iron intake in the diet is too low, the stores become depleted and the hemoglobin levels start to fall.
Anemia occurs when the body does not have enough iron to produce hemoglobin and the iron stores become depleted.
Initially there may be no noticeable symptoms, but as the body becomes more depleted, the symptoms start to become obvious.
Causes for iron deficiency anemia include:
- Blood loss. Blood contains iron within the red blood cells so any loss of blood potentially depletes iron. Due to excessive blood loss, women with heavy periods are commonly at risk for iron deficiency, as are people with slow, chronic blood loss within the body such as from a peptic ulcer, hiatus hernia, colon polyp or colorectal cancer. Gastrointestinal bleeding can result from the regular use of over the counter pain medication, especially asprin.
- Low intake of iron rich foods. The body relies on iron from the foods we eat. Too many processed foods and too little good quality food can prevent us from getting our daily iron requirements. A poor diet can further deplete nutrients because of the extra requirements to break down those foods. Infants and children grow very quickly and during these growth periods the requirements for iron are higher.
- Inability to absorb iron. Iron is absorbed from the small intestine into the bloodstream. Intestinal disorders such as Celia disease can compromise the digestive systems ability to absorb iron from the diet. Surgical removal of parts of the intestine can also compromise iron absorption.
- Pregnancy. Without iron supplementation many women could become iron deficient during pregnancy. This is due to the extra volumes of blood circulating in the body and the needs of the growing fetus.
Symptoms of iron deficiency include:
- Extreme fatigue
- Pale skin
- Chest pain, irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath or palpitations
- Cold hands and feet
- Inflammation or soreness of the tongue
- Brittle nails
- Unusual cravings for non nutritive substances like ice, dirt or starch
- Poor appetite, especially in infants and children
Many of these signs can overlap with other nutrient deficiencies so it’s important to check that iron deficiency is really the problem before supplementing.
Overloading the body with iron can be dangerous because excess iron accumulation can damage the liver and cause other complications.
Foods rich in iron include:
- Red meat, liver, pork and poultry
- Beans and legumes
- Dark leafy green vegetables such as spinach
- Dried fruit such as raisins and apricots
- Iron fortified cereals
- Black strap molasses
Eating foods rich in vitamin C or adding a vitamin C supplement to an iron supplement can be very helpful for optimal iron absorption.
Listen to my interview with Brad Kirsten from Radio Cape Pulpit on 27 August to learn more.
Listen to my next interview on Thursday at 7.45am