Iron, a mineral found in every cell of the body, is an essential element for the body to properly function. It is essential because it is vital for blood production. The body needs iron to make the proteins that carry oxygen through the body, hemoglobin and myoglobin. About 70 percent of the body’s iron is found in these proteins. Hemoglobin is found in red blood cells and is vital for transferring oxygen in the blood from the lungs to the tissues. Myoglobin is found in muscles, and its purpose is to accept, store, transport, and release oxygen.
When the level of red blood cells in your blood is lower than normal, anemia occurs. The most common type of anemia is iron deficiency anemia. This occurs when your body has an insufficient amount of iron. When the body doesn’t have enough iron it is unable to produce enough hemoglobin, the protein responsible for carrying oxygen to the body’s tissues. When the body isn’t able to produce enough hemoglobin, it is unable to get the amount of oxygen it needs.
There are several reasons iron deficiency anemia develops.
- Blood loss. Blood contains red blood cells, which contains iron. The body loses iron as it loses blood. This is common in women with heavy menstrual periods or in people with slow, chronic blood loss within the body, such as a gastrointestinal bleed.
- Poor diet. The body regularly gets the iron it needs from food. If your diet doesn’t include enough iron-rich foods, your body may not be able to get all the iron it needs.
- An inability to absorb iron. The iron received from food is absorbed into the blood stream in the small intestine. If you have an intestinal disorder, such as celiac disease, that affects the intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients from digested food, iron deficiency can occur. Having a part of the small intestine bypassed or surgically removed can also affect the body’s ability to absorb iron.
- Pregnancy. Without proper supplementation, pregnant women can develop iron deficiency anemia because the amount of iron they need increases as their blood volume increases and they become a source of hemoglobin for the growing fetus.
There are several different symptoms of iron deficiency anemia.
- Exhaustion. Less oxygen is able to reach your tissues, leaving your body deprived of energy that it needs.
- Paleness. Blood gets its red hue from hemoglobin and, therefore, gives skin its rosy color. Having low levels of the protein can cause skin to lose its color.
- Shortness of breath. If your oxygen levels are low, you may find yourself feeling out of breath while during regular activities.
- Headaches. The body will prioritize getting oxygen to the brain before other tissues; however, the brain will still be getting less than it should. This can cause brain arteries to swell, causing headaches.
- Hair loss. The body will channel the available oxygen to support the its vital functions instead of keeping hair strong.
It is often best to receive nutrients through food. There are two types of iron found in food: heme iron and non-heme iron. Food sources that contain hemoglobin contain heme iron, such as pork, red meat, fish, and poultry. All non-meat based iron is non-heme iron, such as plants and iron-fortified foods. Iron-rich foods that are important to include in your diet are:
- Red meats, pork, poultry, and seafood
- Dark leafy vegetables, such as spinach and kale
- Green vegetables, such as broccoli, green beans, and peas
- Fruit, fresh and dried varieties
- Iron-fortified cereals, breads, and pasta