Anaemia & iron deficiency
The average person has 3,000-4,000mg of iron in the body. 1-2mg is lost and 1-2mg is absorbed and utilised daily. Every 1ml of blood contains 0.5mg of iron and excess blood loss is the key cause of iron deficiency. If iron deficiency is not treated it may lead to impaired quality of life, a reduced immune system and ultimately result in anaemia.
Iron deficiency ≠ anaemia
The most common cause of anaemia is iron deficiency – but it is NOT the only cause.
Anaemia is defined as the reduced concentration of haemoglobin in red blood cells. It is important to check the cause of anaemia before commencing treatment as it could be caused by other issues such as Vitamin B12, Folate or other deficiencies.
Iron deficiency usually occurs many years before anaemia.
Signs & symptoms of iron deficiency
Fatigue is a permanent sense of feeling worn out - it may be mental or physical exhaustion. Iron is essential for carrying oxygen (via haemoglobin) and convert to energy in muscles. As such, even before anaemia, low iron levels may cause fatigue.¹³ ¹⁴ ¹⁵ ¹⁶ ¹⁷ ¹⁸
Iron is present in every cell of the body and is an essential element of hair and nail growth. Usually hair loss is one of the first symptoms of iron deficiency and is associated with Serum Ferritin levels falling below <70ng/ml.⁴ ⁵
Iron is important for a range of systems that are involved in keeping our bodies at the right temperature. Having iron deficiency may result in you feeling cold easily.¹⁰
Headaches and migraines can be caused by iron deficiency. When deprived of oxygenated blood (secondary to iron deficiency) the muscles in the face, neck, and/or shoulders may become sore or tense which can result in more frequent and otherwise unexplainable headaches.⁸ ⁹
When iron deficient, it is difficult for the body to defend itself against infections which may result in more frequent common colds, flu's and/or infections.⁶ ⁷
Lack of Concentration / Brain Fog
The role of iron in the Central Nervous System (CNS) of our body, particularly in neuronal and neurotransmitter function, is significant. Iron deficiency may lead to decreased ability of our CNS to properly function, this can lead to difficulty concentrating.¹³
Craving for Ice, Dirt or Paper
Craving ice is one of the most common cravings caused by iron deficiency. Unusual cravings to eat things such as clay, dirt, ash and paper may also be caused by iron deficiency.¹ ² ³
While iron deficiency may not be the sole cause of depression, it can cause symptoms similar to depression such as a lack of appetite, irritability, extreme fatigue, headaches and mood swings. Having a broad range of symptoms can be troubling and lead to feelings of sadness, helplessness and depression. Recent publications have shown that iron deficiency is also strongly associated with post-natal depression.¹² ¹³ ¹⁴
Women & iron deficiency
1 in 3 women suffer from iron deficiency
Heavy Menstrual Bleeding (HMB) is the leading cause of iron deficiency putting women at increased risk. You may suffer from HMB if 2 or more of the following apply:
- Passing of large blood clots
- Need for double sanitary protection
(both towels and tampons)
- Need for frequent changes of tampons & towels
(every 2 hours or less, or 12 items per cycle)
- Flooding through to clothes or bedding
Iron deficiency & pregnancy
During pregnancy, approximately 1,000mg of iron is needed. Iron is essential for the neurological, cognitive and physical development of the foetus.
During pregnancy the iron requirements increase significantly - especially in the 3rd trimester. Unfortunately diet alone cannot always support the increased iron demands and oral iron supplements are often poorly tolerated or not effective.
Iron deficiency & endurance athletes
Iron deficiency is more common among physically active individuals compared with their sedentary counterparts.
Iron is essential for performance because of its role in energy metabolism, oxygen transport & acid-base balance. The oxidative capacity of the muscle is reduced when an athlete is iron deficient.
Increased iron turnover in the body during endurance exercise:
Increased iron losses via the gastrointestinal tract, hematuria & hemoglobinuria
Athletes have up to 70% higher iron requirements
Why athletes are at higher risk of iron deficiency?