An iron deficiency, or anaemia, is a condition in which an insufficient amount of oxygen is delivered to the body. Your blood contains haemoglobin, which ensures oxygen is transported throughout your body. You need iron, vitamin B12 and folic acid to make haemoglobin. Not enough oxygen is being released into the body when you’re suffering from an iron deficiency. An iron deficiency can result in symptoms.
Your body will have too little iron in some situations, for example when:
- You have a heavy or long period. This is the most common cause in women.
- You lose small amounts of blood through your stomach or intestines for a long time. This can happen without you noticing. For example, as a result of painkillers like ibuprofen and diclofenac. This can also occur in diseases such as stomach cancer. This is often the cause in women and men over the age of 50.
- You have lost a lot of blood due to surgery, childbirth or a miscarriage.
- You are pregnant. Your body will then require more iron.
- You’re not eating enough iron-rich foods.
- You have a disease which has resulted in your body not being able to properly absorb iron in the intestines.
It’s important for the cause of the iron deficiency to be identified in order for you to be treated properly.
You can suffer from the following symptoms with an iron deficiency:
- A tired and weak feeling.
- Quickly become short of breath with exertion.
- Feeling like you’re going to faint.
- A headache.
- Ringing in the ears.
- Cold hands and feet.
It’s important to absorb more iron through food if you have an iron deficiency. Some products contain a lot of iron, including:
- Legumes, for example kidney and white beans, lentils and soybeans.
- Many vegetables, for example endive, artichoke, broccoli, courgette, peas, grape leaves, purslane, tomato puree, turnip greens and salsify.
- Certain fish and shellfish, like cod, herring, sardines, shrimp, mussels and oysters.
- Dried fruits, mainly apricots and figs
Iron from animal products, such as meat and fish, is more easily absorbed by the body than iron from plant products, such as fruit and vegetables.
Plus your intestines will be able to absorb the iron more effectively if you also take in plenty of vitamin C with your food. Vitamin C is found in (citrus) fruit, vegetables, potatoes, kiwis, berries and strawberries.
In order to diagnose whether or not you have an iron deficiency, your doctor will ask you questions and conduct a physical examination. A blood test is also required. Blood is taken with a finger prick or through a vein in the arm. This blood is then checked for your iron level and, if necessary, you will receive the right advice to regulate your iron levels. You can ask your GP about options such as a hormonal IUD or the pill if you suffer a lot of blood loss during your period. This could reduce your blood loss. If you have too little iron, but you eat a healthy diet, your GP may prescribe iron tablets. Your GP will prescribe how often you should take an iron tablet or drink. You should take this in the morning, preferably at the same time as vitamin C, so your intestine can absorb the iron more effectively. However, this medication may result in side effects like constipation, abdominal pain and black stools.