Iron Deficiency Anaemia: Symptoms, Causes and Foods to Eat

Iron Deficiency Anaemia: Symptoms, Causes and Foods to Eat

Iron is a crucial element for almost all living organisms, acknowledging its role in health and disease. It is an essential mineral that helps maintain healthy blood and participates in various metabolic processes. Our body uses iron to make haemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to all body parts. Iron is also part of myoglobin, which provides oxygen to muscles. It is essential for the growth and development of a healthy brain in children. In addition, it is necessary for the normal synthesis and function of various cells and hormones. Lack of adequate amounts of iron may lead to iron deficiency anaemia.

According to the WHO, iron deficiency is the most common anaemia and widespread nutritional disorder worldwide. An estimated one billion people are affected by it. Hence, providing your body with the right amount of iron is extremely important. 

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of iron for different people in different age groups is:

Infants

  • 0 to 6 months: 0.27 mg
  • 7 to 12 months: 11 mg

Children

  • 1 to 3 years: 7 mg
  • 4 to 8 years: 10 mg

Women

  • 9 to 13 years: 8 mg 
  • 14 to 18 years: 15 mg 
  • 19 to 50 years: 18 mg 
  • 51 years and older: 8 mg 
  • During pregnancy: 27 mg

Men

  • 9 to 13 years: 8 mg
  • 14 to 18 years: 11 mg
  • 19 years and older: 8 mg

What is Iron-Deficiency Anaemia?

As the name suggests, iron deficiency anaemia is a condition caused due to insufficient iron in the body. Without enough iron, the blood cannot carry oxygen effectively, eventually leading to fatigue and lightheadedness. It occurs when your body does not have enough iron required to produce haemoglobin in red blood cells. Insufficient haemoglobin affects oxygen circulation throughout the body.

Symptoms of Iron-Deficiency Anaemia

Iron deficiency anaemia occurs in multiple stages. Initially, it can be mild and go unnoticed as it begins with a decrease in stored iron and a slight drop in red blood cells. But as the body becomes more deficient in iron, it leads to a significant loss of total red blood cells. As a result, the signs and symptoms intensify.

The most common symptoms of iron-deficiency anaemia include:

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Extreme fatigue and weakness
  • Pale skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tachycardia: Increased heart rate 
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Headaches
  • Confusion and loss of concentration
  • Brittle nails
  • Inflammation of tongue
  • Pica: Unusual cravings for substances with no nutritious value, such as ice, dirt, or clay 

Causes of Iron-Deficiency Anaemia

Inadequate Iron in Your Diet

Your body does not produce iron. Therefore, you need to gain it from your diet. If you consume too little iron over an extended time, your body can become iron deficient. People with an imbalanced iron-rich diet may suffer from some level of iron deficiency anaemia. Since iron is necessary for growth and development, you need to include iron-rich foods in your diet.

Blood Loss

Blood contains iron within red blood cells. If you’re losing blood, you’re also losing iron, due to which your body can’t produce enough haemoglobin. It eventually causes iron deficiency anaemia. Some common reasons for blood loss are heavy menstrual bleeding, GI bleeding resulting from regular pain relievers, such as aspirin, stomach ulcer and colon cancer. Blood loss may also occur due to an injury.

Inability to Absorb Iron

Your body absorbs iron and other nutrients from the food you eat into your bloodstream through your small intestine. So even if you get enough iron in your diet, you may be iron deficient. In addition, it may cause an injury or an intestinal disorder such as celiac’s disease can affect your intestine’s ability to absorb iron from digested food. Moreover, an intestinal surgery such as gastric bypass may decrease the amount of iron your body can absorb. As a result, it may lead to iron deficiency anaemia.

Endometriosis

Endometriosis is a disorder in which tissue similar to the lining of your uterus grows outside your uterine cavity. The lining of your uterus is called the endometrium. Women with endometriosis can have iron deficiency anaemia due to heavy blood loss during menstruation.

Pregnancy 

Pregnancy demands an increased iron requirement and increased red blood cell production. A pregnant woman’s body goes through several changes. The iron stores are a source of haemoglobin which their body uses to make more blood to supply oxygen for the growing fetus. If you don’t have enough iron stores during pregnancy, you could develop iron deficiency anaemia.

Risk Factors of Iron Deficiency Anaemia

The optimal iron concentration needed to meet your physiologic needs varies by age, environment, sex, genetics, lifestyle, and pregnancy status. Such factors increase the risk for iron deficiency anaemia.

Sex

Iron deficiency anaemia is more common in women since they lose blood during menstruation. Furthermore, women are at greater risk of iron deficiency anaemia due to other factors like pregnancy, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids. 

Age

Infants between 6 and 12 months, especially those with low birth weight or born prematurely, are at a greater risk of iron deficiency. In addition, children who were fed a formula that was unfortified with iron or who don’t get enough iron from breast milk may be at risk of iron deficiency.

Children of preschool age have more requirements of iron for growth and development. However, many children receive less than their optimal daily value. Therefore, they have a high prevalence of iron-deficient anaemia.

As per a research study, iron deficiency is a significant cause of anaemia in older adults, especially those over age 65. It is due to nutritional deficiencies, medications, various therapies and poor absorption. 

Lifestyle

Vegetarians or vegans are more likely to experience iron deficiency anaemia. If you are not eating enough iron-rich foods, such as meat and fish, you have a greater risk of iron deficiency anaemia. Therefore, you should eat other iron-rich foods to get the recommended daily amount of iron.

Individuals who donate blood frequently may also be at risk for iron deficiency anaemia since blood donation can deplete iron stores. However, it may be a temporary problem and can be remedied by eating more iron-rich foods.

Environmental Factors

Children who have a metallic element, Lead, in their blood from the environment or water have an increased risk of having iron deficiency anaemia. That is because Lead interferes with the body’s ability to make haemoglobin.

Genetics

A study suggests that blood-related genetic abnormalities can be hereditary. In some cases, they may cause iron deficiency anaemia. For example, individuals with a gene for haemophilia may be at risk. It is especially true in the case of symptomatic female carriers who have heavy menstrual periods.

Health Complications of Iron-Deficiency Anaemia

Iron deficiency anaemia is primarily mild and doesn’t cause any health complications. However, if it is not taken care of and is remained untreated, it can lead to other health problems such as:

Heart Problems

Cells in tissues need a constant supply of oxygen to function well. Usually, haemoglobin in red blood cells carries oxygen from the lungs to all body tissues. However, the heart of an anaemic patient has to pump more blood to compensate for the low amount of oxygen. As a result, it can lead to tachycardia, which is an abnormally fast heartbeat. In severe cases, it may also lead to an enlarged heart or even heart failure.

Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a common condition that affects the nervous system and causes an overwhelming, uncontrollable urge to move the legs. Iron deficiency has been consistently found to be a risk factor causing RLS. However, as per one study, treatment of iron deficiency lead to an improvement in the RLS symptoms. Therefore, you can easily treat RLS with iron supplements.

Pregnancy Complications

Severe iron deficiency anaemia in pregnant women has been linked to postpartum depression, preterm delivery and low birth weight. There is also an increased risk of infant death immediately after birth. However, you can prevent this by taking iron supplements as part of your prenatal care.

As per research, iron deficiency anaemia adversely affects maternal and fetal well-being throughout pregnancy and is linked to increased morbidity and fetal death.

Increased Risk of Infections

According to 2010 research, iron deficiency is linked to impairment of immunity. In addition, it increases the susceptibility to infection by pathogens by suppressing the immunological response. As a result, it may increase the risk of infections in individuals.

Depression

A study found iron deficiency to be one of the nutritional deficiencies that often contribute to depression. Furthermore, people with iron deficiency anaemia have a significantly higher prevalence and risk of anxiety and sleep disorders. Our bodies require iron to produce dopamine in the brain, a feel-good hormone needed to feel pleasure and motivation.

Foods that Fight Anaemia

You can reduce your risk of iron deficiency anaemia by choosing iron-rich foods. Some of the iron-rich foods that can fight anaemia are:

Non-Vegetarian Sources

Our bodies absorb three times more iron from animal sources than from plants. Some of the most iron-rich foods are:

Meat

Apart from being a great source of protein, meat is one of the most important and easily available sources of heme iron. That is because the body more easily absorbs heme iron than non-heme iron. 

Research shows that people who eat meat regularly are less prone to iron deficiency. The redder the meat, the more iron content it has. For example, chicken liver and beef contain 11 mg and 3.3 mg per 100g of iron content, respectively. Meat also contains other nutrients like iodine, zinc, vitamins and essential fatty acids. So it is advisable to consume meat regularly as a part of a balanced diet.

Seafood

Shellfish like clams, oysters and mussels are extremely rich sources of iron, and a 100g serving of clams may contain up to 26 mg of iron. Tuna, haddock, mackerel, and sardines are a few other iron-rich fish that you can also include in your diet. Seafood is also low in saturated fats and rich in protein, vitamin A, B, and omega-3-fatty acids, making it a complete nutrient package. 

Eggs

Egg yolks contain both heme and nonheme iron. One hundred grams of eggs contain 2.73mg of iron. They also possess high-quality protein, essential vitamins and minerals. Moreover, eggs increase the levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol in the body. 

Animal Liver

The animal liver is one of the best sources of heme iron. One hundred gram serving of beef liver contains 6.5mg of iron. The liver is an excellent source of vitamin A and is also high in folic acid, iron, and zinc, making it the most nutrient-dense organ meat. 

Plant Sources of Iron

Even though you absorb less of the iron in plants, adding a source of vitamin C to vegetarian sources of iron will enhance absorption. Therefore, you can prevent iron-deficiency anaemia by eating iron-rich foods and vitamin C. Some of the foods that you can add to your diet are:

Spinach

Dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach are rich in iron. As a result, they are an excellent iron source for vegans and vegetarians. In addition, spinach helps curb the risk of iron deficiency anaemia. One hundred grams of spinach gives 1.6mg of non-heme iron. Although it provides non-heme iron, spinach is also rich in vitamin C, essential for iron absorption. In addition, spinach contains various vitamins and minerals that support your immune system and decreases inflammation. 

Mushrooms

A few varieties of mushrooms are rich in iron. For example, button mushrooms contain 0.5 mg iron per 100g. At the same time, oyster mushrooms contain up to twice as much iron as button mushrooms. As a result, mushrooms provide iron, which can help treat anaemia. In addition, mushrooms are a good source of protein, fibre, vitamins and antioxidants, contributing to your overall health. 

Quinoa

One cup of cooked quinoa contains 2.8mg of iron. Pairing it with other high-iron foods rich in vitamin C may improve iron absorption in the body. You can add red peppers, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes to help quinoa work more efficiently. Since quinoa is gluten-free, it is a good choice for people with celiac disease. Quinoa is also a good protein, fibre, copper, and vitamin B6 source. 

Broccoli

One hundred grams of broccoli contains 1mg of iron, making it another iron-rich vegetable. It also contains vitamin C, which helps the body absorb non-heme iron better. In addition, fibre-rich broccoli is a rich source of numerous vitamins such as vitamin K, A and C, and minerals like calcium, zinc and phosphorus.

Legumes

Legumes are another excellent plant-based source of iron. One cup of cooked lentils provides approximately 6.6mg of iron, while chickpeas and kidney beans contain up to 2mg of iron per 100g. Legumes are cholesterol-free and provide fibre, protein, copper, magnesium, manganese, zinc, and phosphorus. Having more legumes in your diet will help you prevent anaemia and decrease the risk of cardiovascular diseases. 

Seeds

One hundred grams of pumpkin seeds contain 9.76mg of iron. Other seeds like sesame, hemp, and flax are also full of iron. They have an average of 0.6 to 2.1 mg iron per tablespoon. In addition, these seeds also have several other benefits. For example, pumpkin seeds are a great source of vitamin K, zinc, magnesium and manganese. 

Dried Fruits

Dried fruits are highly nutritious and have high fibre content. In addition, dried fruits like raisins and apricots are excellent sources of iron. For example, one hundred grams of raisins contain 2.6 mg of iron and apricots contain 6.3 mg of iron per 100gm. They are also high in potassium, vitamin A and vitamin K. Dried fruits also help increase energy and improve digestion. 

Nuts

Nuts are an excellent source of non-heme iron. They also contain various other vitamins, minerals, fibre, healthy fats and essential plant compounds. Peanuts, almonds, walnuts, cashews, and pistachios are rich in iron and help fight anaemia. However, pistachios have the highest iron content ranging about 14mg per 100g. Therefore, a handful of dried fruit, nuts, and seeds makes an excellent high-iron snack.

Summary

Iron is a significant component of haemoglobin, a heme protein that carries oxygen from your lungs to all the body parts. Therefore, your body needs an adequate amount of iron to function properly. Conversely, lack of enough iron causes iron-deficiency anaemia. Iron deficiency anaemia is when your body can’t produce enough healthy red blood cells. It may lead to various health issues. Therefore, intake of adequate amounts of iron from your diet is vital for growth, development and overall well-being. 

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