Anemia is a common blood disorder involving the red blood cells. These are just one type of cell that makes up blood but is crucial for life as it carries oxygen throughout the body. There are several types of anemia but iron deficiency anemia is by far the most common. A large number of cases of iron deficiency anemia is due to a lack of iron intake and this is the most common nutritional disorder globally. Iron deficiency anemia can be treated and prevented to a large extent.
How does anemia occur?
As mentioned, there are many different types of anemia. Some are due to genetic factors as is seen in sickle cell anemia. Others occur with disturbances in red blood cell formation and in some diseases the immune system even attacks the red blood cells. However, iron deficiency anemia is by far the most common. As the name suggests, it is due to insufficient iron in the body but this is not entirely due to not consuming enough iron-rich foods.
Iron is one of the most important components of red blood cells. It forms part of hemoglobin, the chemical that is responsible for red blood cells being able to carry oxygen. With iron lacking, the hemoglobin is lower than normal in the red blood cells and the body may also make fewer red blood cells. As a results the ability of the blood to carry oxygen is reduced.
Read more on the signs of iron deficiency anemia.
There are four ways in which iron deficiency anemia arises:
- Insufficient iron intake
- Inability to absorb iron
- Regular or heavy loss of blood
- Increased utilization of iron by the body
Insufficient Dietary Iron
The human body cannot produce iron. Therefore iron has to be sourced from food. Some foods are iron-rich but there is iron in many foods that may not otherwise be considered abundant in these foods. Supplements may also be necessary for some people. Large doses of iron are not necessary.
It is cumulative effect and small amounts of iron is sourced from food by the body and stored for later use. Heme iron which is better absorbed is mainly found in animal foods, like meat and eggs. However, iron can also be found in plants foods, most notably leafy green vegetables. Furthermore iron may be found in fortified in foods.
Inability to Absorb Iron
Food is digested in the gut and nutrients are absorbed. The small intestine is where most nutrients are absorbed, and this applies to iron as well. However, if the small intestine diseases or disorders then iron absorption may be impaired. This can be seen in conditions like celiac disease.
In these cases, even above normal iron intake via supplements may not be sufficient. The impairment may not be a problem if it is short term. However, in chronic bowel conditions the impaired absorption of iron will eventually affect red blood cell formation.
Loss of Blood
Blood loss is another major contributor to iron deficiency anemia. It does not only affect girls and women of reproductive age as a result of menstruation. In fact not all females in this age group have iron deficiency anemia. It is more likely to be a problem when the periods are heavy or abnormally prolonged.
However, blood loss may occur through various other ways apart from overt bleeding through a skin wound. Constant minor blood loss may occur in conditions which results in gastrointestinal bleeding. This includes conditions like a bleeding peptic ulcer, colon polyp or even colorectal cancer.
Increased Use of Iron
At times the body may require more iron because of increased use. This is mainly seen in pregnancy as the mother’s body has to cater for the increased nutritional demands of the developing fetus. Therefore iron deficiency anemia is common in pregnancy among pregnant women who do not use iron supplements. However, a healthy diet that is abundant in iron-rich foods may also suffice.
How to Prevent Iron Deficiency Anemia
Iron deficiency anemia must first be treated when present. Iron supplementation over a period of time is usually the preferred approach to treating this type of anemia. Once the blood iron levels, red blood cells and hemoglobin levels are normal then preventative measures should be made part of daily life. Always consult with a doctor about the treatment and management of iron deficiency anemia.
Eat more iron rich food
Food choices can make a difference in the prevention of iron deficiency anemia. Although this may not be helpful when there are problems with iron absorption, people with anemia should opt for iron-rich foods. This includes both animal and plant based foods. Non-vegetarians should not only focus on meat options due to the associated health risk of a high meat diet. It should be balanced with a good intake of leafy green vegetables.
Take the right supplement dose
Iron may be bound to different compounds in an iron supplement. Always speak to a doctor or pharmacist about the best option. Studies have shown that iron amino acid chelated, also known as chelated iron, is better absorbed than ferrous sulfate¹. However, this should not exclude ferrous sulfate supplements entirely.
Also ask a medical professional about the optimal dose of iron supplements. This can vary among the different age groups, genders and for pregnant women. Avoid excessive iron supplementation. It is not necessary and can worsen some of the side effects that occur with iron supplement use, like constipation.
Increase vitamin C intake
Vitamin C is known to aid with iron absorption. Citrus fruits or juice, like orange juice, should be taken with an iron supplementation or vitamin C supplements can also be used. In addition, increasing vitamin C intake make also be helpful for iron absorption for foods. It is important to note that the vitamin C rich beverage or supplement should be consumed around the same time as the iron supplement.
Do not stop prescribed medication
Never stop prescribed medication that is being used to treat the underlying cause of iron deficiency anemia, unless advised by a doctor. For example, oral contraceptives may be prescribed to regulate the menstrual cycle in women who are experiencing heavy periods. Even if the periods appear to be normal again and the iron deficiency anemia has resolved, the contraceptive should not be stopped without a doctor’s advice.