It's the most common nutritional deficiency across the entire planet. Rich populations, poor populations – people everywhere suffer from an iron deficiency. It is also the leading cause of anemia in the United States.
Iron deficiency is caused by a lack of iron in the body or – less commonly – by a body's decreased absorption of the iron it does take in. It is of particular concern in young people, as it can delay proper infant motor and mental function. Iron deficient pregnant women are at risk for preterm births. In other adults, a deficiency in iron can cause fatigue and adversely affect memory and other mental functions.
How do you know if you are iron deficient? An iron deficiency can only be verified through a blood test administered by a healthcare professional, but the symptoms of iron deficiency are many and varied. These include:
▪ Brittle nails
▪ Difficulty maintaining body temperature
▪ Glossititis (an inflamed tongue)
▪ Hair loss
▪ Impaired immune function
▪ Pagophagia (compulsive eating of ice)
▪ Restless legs syndrome
The obvious reason someone may have an iron deficiency is because she is not consuming enough iron in her diet, but there are other avenues of causality. Heavy menstrual bleeding, blood loss during childbirth, and internal bleeding conditions such as a stomach ulcer, polyps in the colon or intestines, and colon cancer can all contribute to iron deficiency.
Some people are particularly susceptible to iron deficiency. These include pregnant women, frequent blood donors, infants born prematurely, children going through a growth spurt, vegetarians who do not replace meat with a properly iron-rich substitute, and, of course, those with just plain poor diets.
Doctors typically diagnose iron deficiency via a Complete Blood Cell Test(CBC). This examination is routinely performed as part of any physical examination, and is often taken prior to surgery.
If you are diagnosed with iron deficiency, what can you do? If the cause is a nutritional deficiency, you will have to buck up your iron intake, of course. Iron supplements may be prescribed. If so, a counterintuitive tip is to take them on an empty stomach, as that will help the body absorb the mineral more quickly. Taking vitamin C tablets will also facilitate iron absorption.
Eating a diet high in the following foods will both help you stave off, as well as recover from, an iron deficiency:
▪ dark green, leafy vegetables
▪ dried fruits
▪ iron-fortified cereals
▪ red meat
Vegetarians, take note: iron from fish, poultry and meat is absorbed by our bodies two to three times more efficiently than from plant-based minerals.