First of all, a disclaimer and a warning from us: please don’t use this as a diagnosis tool! If you’re at all concerned about your health then get booked in with a medical professional as soon as you can, and if you have health anxiety then this probably isn’t the blog post for you… TW: blood, health. Now that’s out of the way, we can get down to business. If you’re looking to learn about pernicious anaemia or aplastic anaemia then you might be in the wrong place, because this is going to cover all the gory details on the most common cause of malnutrition in the world: iron deficiency anaemia.
What actually is it?
Iron-deficiency anaemia is diagnosed when the amount of iron in the blood drops below a certain level. This level is defined differently for men and women, and it’s diagnosed through a simple blood test, which is usually available on the NHS for people on diets with lower iron (sorry America) – so if you’re worried, be sure to play the vegan card!
Iron is essential because it’s a key component of haemoglobin: a protein of red blood cells that binds with oxygen molecules and carries them from the lungs to the rest of the body. Without enough iron, the number of red blood cells that are equipped to do their job properly falls. This causes iron-deficiency anaemia due to your red blood cells not working properly. Blood loss on the other hand, for example through periods, causes iron-deficiency anaemia because there are just fewer red blood cells kicking about altogether.
The body does a good job of masking it to start with, but over time the lack of oxygen going to your muscles and organs takes its toll. We won’t fall down the rabbit hole of exactly how oxygen is used in the body, but if you’re struggling to get your head round what deficiency would feel like, imagine you’ve just had to run for the bus… all the time. Except with the constant feeling of still missing it, too.
What are the symptoms?
Anaemia can range from mild to severe, with the mild form being relatively common. You want to catch it early on, so keep an eye out for:
Image shows: infographic illustrating the symptoms of anaemia that can be spotted by the untrained eye, including:
- Tiredness, fatigue, lack of energy – this could manifest as dizziness or weakness
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations (to the point where you can feel your own heartbeats)
- Pale or yellowish skin
And less commonly:
- A sore tongue and ulcers
- Sores at the sides of the mouth
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Hair loss
- Spoon-shaped nails
- Poor circulation
- Restless leg syndrome
- Pica (craving things that wouldn’t usually be on the menu, such as paper or ice) – clearly your body’s getting desperate at this point, but it doesn’t have the oxygen to make sense of it all!
Why do we get it, and who’s at risk?
Vegans/vegetarians are more likely to be diagnosed with anaemia, because a diet without red meat is naturally lower in iron. Shellfish, fish, white meat and organs are also rich in it – no thanks!
Pregnancy, as if it wasn’t enough to ask of a person already, also draws on the body’s iron resources as it has to provide enough for the growing foetus at the same time. Iron supplements are therefore often prescribed during pregnancy.
Anyone who menstruates is also at higher risk, because they need more iron to balance out their period – it’s still blood loss even if it’s not ‘traumatic’ in the ER sense…
Iron is especially important in a child’s diet, because it’s associated with delayed brain development and can affect attention, learning and motor skills. Stores are seriously depleted during puberty (growth spurts and periods are a killer combo!), so keep your eyes peeled for the signs.
Older people can also really feel the adverse effects of iron deficiency, because physical weakness might reduce already impaired motor skills and confusion can be even more noticeable (and scarier!) when the brain has already slowed down.
There can be other things that mean you’re predisposed to deficiency though, from something as simple as having a poorer absorption rate compared to the next person, to having unseen blood loss from something like a stomach ulcer. That’s why if you’re seeing the signs, get yourself checked out before you start chowing down on the supplements!
What’s the treatment?
This will depend on how low your initial level is and what the cause is determined to be, but the main thing is that it is treatable! If there’s anything underlying then doctors will want to take it out at the root, but if blood tests show that your red blood cell count is low you may be prescribed high strength (relative to daily supplements) iron tablets, or you may be advised to incorporate more iron into your diet*. If things have got really bad – we’re talking serious trauma here – you could even need a blood transfusion to get your red blood cell count back up!
Luckily, there are ways to nip iron deficiency in the bud – read on and you won’t ever have to let it get that bad…
How can you prevent it?
Just because herbivores might be more susceptible doesn’t mean it’s inevitable! Not only are loads of leaves packed with the stuff, a single supplement can put your mind at ease. Iron can be found in abundance in:
- Beans, peas and lentils
- Tofu, tempeh and soybeans
- Pumpkin, sesame, hemp and flax seeds
- Almonds, cashews, pine nuts and macadamia nuts (and their butters)
- Leafy greens (kale and spinach)
- Broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts
The recommended daily intake is in the table below – if you’re worried you’re not hitting it, then maybe supplements are the answer?
|Life Stage||Recommended Amount|
|Birth to 6 months||0.27 mg|
|Infants 7–12 months||11 mg|
|Children 1–3 years||7 mg|
|Children 4–8 years||10 mg|
|Children 9–13 years||8 mg|
|Teens boys 14–18 years||11 mg|
|Teens girls 14–18 years||15 mg|
|Adult men 19–50 years||8 mg|
|Adult women 19–50 years||18 mg|
|Adults 51 years and older||8 mg|
|Pregnant teens||27 mg|
|Pregnant women||27 mg|
|Breastfeeding teens||10 mg|
|Breastfeeding women||9 mg|
Supplements aren’t just for the plant-eaters though! Because absorption rates and metabolism can vary so massively from person to person, even a diet relatively low in red meat could be cause for concern.
Oh, and taking your iron supplement with a glass of orange juice can help get you over that final hurdle! Vitamin C has been found to increase absorption of iron from the gut, and pushes iron out of storage so that it can be used where the body needs it most.
Don’t go overboard, though. Iron isn’t a water-soluble nutrient, meaning that any excess gets stored in the body. Dietary iron is unlikely to build up too much, but too many supplements could lead to iron toxicity. Too much of a good thing and all that! So keep any yummy gummies out of reach of grabby hands…
As always, we’re here if you want to ask any questions! Either leave a comment below or drop us an email via firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you!