Illustration of red blood cells which can be affected by iron deficiency anemia

What is Iron Deficiency Anemia?

Medically reviewed on June 27, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


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Every organ and tissue in the body needs blood, which is responsible for carrying oxygen and various nutrients throughout the body. Blood is also necessary for carrying carbon dioxide and other waste products to the kidneys, lungs, and digestive system for proper disposal [1].

Unfortunately, abnormal blood counts can pose problems, particularly anemia. While many people associate anemia with not having enough blood, it refers to a lack of adequate red blood cells. Anemia comes in different forms, including iron deficiency anemia and aplastic anemia. Learn more about iron deficiency anemia below.

Understanding Iron

Iron is an essential mineral that has a broad range of functions in the human body. It is largely involved in general growth and development, but in terms of blood, iron is a necessary component for synthesizing hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells that is responsible for carrying oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Iron is also used in the synthesis of myoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen to the muscles.

Iron Deficiency Anemia

Iron deficiency anemia is a form of anemia that is specifically caused by low iron levels in the body. Not enough iron means the body has trouble producing hemoglobin and myoglobin, which ultimately means less oxygenated blood sent to all the organs [3].

Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia can vary from person to person. It can be so mild that you don’t even notice it or attribute your health to other issues in its early stages. Over time, as iron deficiency anemia worsens, the symptoms of the condition become more defined and harder to ignore [3].

The most common signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include:

  • Extreme physical fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Loss of color in the skin
  • Headaches
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Chest pains, increased heartbeat, and shortness of breath
  • Inflammation or irritation in the tongue
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Hands and feet that feel cold
  • Strange cravings for ice, dirt, starch, or other non-foods or non-nutritive
  • substances
  • Generally poor appetite [3]

In kids, severe iron deficiency anemia can lead to problems with growth and development. Left untreated, iron deficiency anemia can lead to ongoing heart problems, and it can cause complications with pregnancies, including babies with low birth weights and premature births [3].

What Causes Iron Deficiency Anemia?

If you have an iron deficiency, it’s primarily caused by a lack of iron that prevents the proper production of hemoglobin. However, not having enough iron in the blood can be caused by different things.

Blood Loss

As mentioned, iron makes up the red blood cells in the blood, so losing blood naturally means losing iron. That can, of course, come from larger wounds that cause massive blood loss, but there are other, subtler ways that you can lose blood like heavy menstrual periods. If you experience heavy periods every month, the excess blood loss may contribute to a higher risk of iron deficiency anemia [3].

Other conditions may contribute to a slow but chronic loss of blood. This may include peptic ulcers, colon polyps, colorectal cancer, and other conditions that cause bleeding in the digestive system. Regular use of over-the-counter pain medications, particularly aspirin and other NSAIDs, can lead to steady gastrointestinal bleeding [3].

Pregnancy

Women typically need to take an iron supplement and eat an iron-rich diet during pregnancy. Pregnancy results in increased blood volume, along with more blood and hemoglobin to support a developing fetus. Without an elemental iron supplement, you simply wouldn’t have enough dietary iron to support your own body and the fetus at the same time, potentially resulting in iron deficiency anemia [3].

Low Iron Diet

Iron is an essential mineral, meaning you can only get it through an iron-rich diet. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you are likely more at risk for an iron deficiency. This typically takes an extended period with a low amount of iron in the diet. The good news is that most people can readily get enough iron through their diets alone [3].

Poor Iron Absorption

Even if you are consuming enough iron, your body may have trouble properly absorbing or metabolizing that dietary iron. Iron gets absorbed in the small intestine, so any damage or disorders in the intestines can potentially affect iron absorption. Bypassing or removing part of the small intestine via surgery can also affect iron absorption [3].

Preventing Iron Deficiency Anemia

The best place to start to prevent iron deficiency anemia is to look at the diet. You can generally find a wide range of foods that naturally contain iron, and many other foods have been fortified with iron. Common foods that are rich in iron include:

  • Breads and breakfast cereals fortified with iron
  • Lean meats, poultry, and seafood
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Spinach and other leafy greens
  • Most legumes, including white beans, kidney beans, peas, and lentils
  • Some dried fruits, including raisins

Iron comes in two forms. Nonheme iron is most often found in plant-based foods and fortified food products, while meat, poultry, and seafood have a mix of both heme and nonheme iron. The body generally does not absorb nonheme iron as efficiently as heme iron, though mixing plant-based foods with more animal-based meats allows for better absorption of nonheme iron. This is also why vegetarians may need to eat twice as much iron as they are getting mostly nonheme iron. Eating foods containing more vitamin C may also help with iron absorption [2].

The average daily recommended amount of iron for adult men is about 8 milligrams, while adult women should have upwards of 18 milligrams of iron per day. Pregnant women should have up to 27 milligrams of iron per day [2].

Treating Iron Deficiency Anemia

Once you’ve taken an iron test and determined you have an iron deficiency, it’s time to determine the next steps to treat it. Depending on your case, your healthcare provider may recommend taking iron supplements to ensure that you get enough iron in the blood. It’s important to go by your healthcare provider’s recommendation to get the right dose. Don’t take dietary supplements without consulting your healthcare provider [4].

While you might feel better after a week on iron supplements, treating iron deficiency anemia is not an overnight solution. You may need to take iron supplements for several months, potentially even up to a year, to restore your iron reserves and support healthy blood [4].

Beyond iron supplements, it is important to talk to a healthcare provider to determine any underlying problems. As effective as iron supplements are, they won’t fix any form of internal bleeding or treat celiac disease or any other disorder that prevents absorption of iron. Underlying issues require other treatments, from surgery to antibiotics [4].

Iron deficiency anemia is a serious health problem with a wide range of symptoms. If you think you may have an iron deficiency, consult your healthcare provider.

8 Common Signs of an Iron Deficiency

What Causes Iron Deficiency?

What Does the Iron, TIBC, and Ferritin Panel test?

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References

1. InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. What does blood do? [Updated 2019 Aug 29]. Available from: URL. Accessed June 27, 2022.

2. Iron. NIH. URL. Accessed June 27, 2022.

3. Iron deficiency anemia. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed June 27, 2022.

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