Having the right amount of iron in your body may not be on your list of priorities, but perhaps it should be. Iron is responsible for bringing oxygen to your cells and removing waste, like carbon dioxide, from them. Your body needs to have the right amount of iron or you can develop some serious health problems, like anemia -- a condition in which your body doesn't have enough red blood cells.
Iron deficiency occurs in three stages. The first, and mildest, stage is called iron depletion. In this stage, you don’t have enough stored iron, but you do have enough iron to maintain normal body function. In the next, mid-grade stage of iron deficiency, both functional iron and iron stores are low. Iron-deficiency anemia is the final, and most severe, stage of iron deficiency, in which the iron in your body has been completely depleted. This results in a lower-than-normal red blood cell count.
You may have low iron stores without even realizing it. Physical symptoms usually don’t develop until the lack of iron affects the amount of red blood cells in your body. You may experience fatigue, lightheadedness, dizziness, shortness of breath, brittle nails, pale skin and irritability. You may also notice you have trouble concentrating and cannot perform as well at work. In addition to these troubling symptoms, prolonged iron deficiency can actually shorten your lifespan, according to Dr. Allen Nissenson, a nephrologist.
Causes of Low Iron
A common cause of not having enough iron in your body is bleeding. Women with heavy, long or frequent menstrual periods are especially at risk of developing low iron levels. Ulcers and colon polyps can cause chronic bleeding that eventually leads to low iron levels. Decreased iron levels can also develop as a result of decreased iron intake or inability to absorb iron because of digestive diseases like celiac disease. Vegetarians are at a greater risk of not having enough iron in the body because the iron from plant foods is not as easily absorbed as the iron from animal foods.
The first step in preventing low iron levels is to meet your dietary needs. Women have increased iron needs -- 18 milligrams per day -- to make up for the iron lost in menstruation. Meet your iron needs by including a variety of iron-rich foods, such as clams, meat, poultry, beans, lentils and spinach. You can increase the absorption of iron from plant foods by eating iron-rich foods with foods that contain vitamin C, such as oranges and tomatoes. If you have an underlying condition, such as celiac disease, the condition must be treated first before the iron deficiency can be corrected.
- The New York Times: Iron Deficiency Anemia
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Iron and Iron Deficiency
- California Department of Public Health: Iron
- Lab Tests Online: Iron Tests
- MayoClinic.com: Iron Deficiency Anemia
- Nutrition and You; Joan Salge Blake
- The New York Times: ‘Tired Blood’ Warning: Ignore It at Your Peril
- Chad Baker/Photodisc/Getty Images