Understanding iron deficiency is a key problem influencing schools since failing to get enough iron can lead to an inability to learn and concentrate. Iron deficiency anemia is also a key issue employers need to understand and detect in biometric screening and health risk assessments since it is directly tied to health issues, workplace productivity and performance.
What is iron deficiency anemia?
Iron is an essential mineral needed by every cell in your body throughout your life. One of the key functions iron has is to form haemoglobin in your red blood cells to carry oxygen from your lungs to all parts of the body.
Iron deficiency anemia occurs when your body doesn’t have enough iron to make haemoglobin, which causes a low level of red blood cells. Without enough red blood cells, your body can’t supply enough oxygen, leading to fatigue, exhaustion and other health effects.
What are the signs?
You may experience no symptoms with initial iron depletion (which occurs before iron deficiency anemia). Working with your physician for regular blood screening is the best way to ensure you are keeping an eye on your blood work trends.
Signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia may include:
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- Sleeping more yet still waking and feeling tired
- Inability to focus or concentrate at work or school
- Dizziness, headaches or light-headedness
- Mood changes and irritability
- Run down immune system and more frequent illness
- Poor physical activity performance and shortness of breath in manual labor jobs or playing sports
- Slow social and cognitive development in children
- An inflamed tongue (glossitis)
- Cold hands and feet
- Hair loss and brittle nails
Who is at risk?
Although anyone can develop iron deficiency anemia, here are a few of the higher-risk groups:
Women that have heavy menstrual blood loss are higher risk for iron deficiency. Pregnant and breastfeeding women have an increased need for iron.
Infants, children and teens
Rapid growth causes an increased need for iron. Breastfed babies that are not provided with iron-fortified cereals or other high iron solid foods at 6 months of age are at risk along with formula fed babies that are not fed iron-fortified formula. Excessive intake of milk (over 750ml per day for kids aged 1-5), juice or pop can limit an appetite for iron dense solid foods.
Vegetarians are at higher risk of iron deficiency overall since their diet contains non-heme iron which is poorly absorbed compared to heme iron.
Hard training, particularly in endurance sports and high altitude training increases the need for red blood cells and therefore iron. Athletes also can lose iron in sweat as well as in sports such as running, some red blood cells get crushed on foot strike.
If you are living with certain chronic diseases such as cancer, ulcerative colitis or undetected/poorly managed celiac disease, or if you are taking certain medications your iron levels may be affected. Speak to your physician to find out more.
How is iron deficiency anemia treated?
Since getting too much iron can be toxic (particularly in children), do not take extra iron supplements without first speaking with your physician to have your blood work screened.
If you are diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia, work with a Registered Dietitian to review the amount and type of iron supplement that is best for you along with adjusting your everyday nutrition to maximize iron-rich foods.
How can I maximize the iron in my diet?
1. Choose high iron foods
Heme iron from meat, poultry, fish and seafood are high in iron and absorbed approximately twice as well as non-heme iron from plant based protein sources such as fortified cereals, legumes, nuts and spinach. If you are vegetarian or choose not to eat much meat, poultry and fish, work with a Registered Dietitian to help you customize a plan that ensures you are getting enough iron through other foods. Cooking with cast iron pans also increases iron absorption of your meals.
2. Eat iron rich foods with a source of Vitamin C
Vitamin C greatly increases the amount of iron you absorb out of a food. Choose vitamin C rich vegetables and fruit such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, potatoes, kiwis, peppers, cantaloupe, broccoli and berries with iron rich meals.
3. Be aware of factors that decrease iron absorption
Avoid drinking coffee or tea at high iron meals since these decrease iron absorption. Be sure to take calcium supplements at different times than supplements containing iron as these two minerals compete for absorption. Be aware that overuse of antacids can decrease stomach acidity which is important for iron absorption.