Iron-Deficiency Anemia - What Is It and How Did I Get It?

What is Iron Deficiency Anemia?

Iron-deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia.  Women are more likely to have iron-deficiency anemia than men.  It occurs when there is not enough blood in your body due to blood loss, poor diet or inability to absorb adequate amounts of iron from foods.  This is one of the easiest forms of anemia to treat.

The Detailed Version

The human body is comprised of billions of cells. These cells are grouped together in organs such as your liver, heart and lungs. These cells work within these organs around the clock to keep you healthy and alive. Each cell requires certain things to be able to properly function. Two of these things are fuel and oxygen. The fuel comes from the food you eat and the oxygen comes from the air you breath.

Within your circulatory system flows an extensive mapping of arteries and veins to and from every inch of your body. It is the blood streaming through these arteries and veins that carries the necessary fuel and oxygen to your cells to keep them working day and night. The big players in this transportation of life sustaining elements are the red blood cells. Red blood cells are produced in your bone marrow and then sent into your bloodstream where they live about 120 days. They are made of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is key in this delivery system because it binds to oxygen molecules. Your heart powers your circulatory system that pumps these transporters throughout your body. With every beat of your heart the red blood cells, thanks to the help of hemoglobin, pick up oxygen from your lungs and then continue on to your digestive system where they pick up fuel which it then delivers to every cell in your body. Your cells take in the oxygen and release carbon dioxide which the red blood cells transport back to your lungs where it is released when you exhale.

The red blood cell's importance to every cell and organ of your body is very clear. Without it your body could not function properly, if at all. These hemoglobin filled red blood cells are made up of mostly iron so supplying iron to bone marrow is essential in order for it to produce new red blood cells to replace the ones that have died. Too much iron is toxic and could cause organ damage. However, if your body doesn't have enough iron, your bone marrows production of hemoglobin drops and there are fewer red blood cells made to replace the ones that have died. When red blood cell production decreases, there aren't enough new cells to replace the ones that have already lived out their 120 day life span and are gone. This causes the number of red blood cells to fall below normal levels, this is called anemia. There are many types of anemia, but in this situation where red blood cell count is low due to lack of iron to create hemoglobin, it is called iron-deficiency anemia.

This is a slide of iron-deficiency anemia. A normal red blood cell with normal hemoglobin levels is solid red. Notice how these iron-deficient cells are white in the center due to low hemoglobin levels. There is one cell in this pic that is solid red in the lower right hand corner of the picture. This is what a normal red blood cell should look like.

It Usually Sneaks Up On You

Iron deficiency anemia doesn't happen overnight. This form of anemia typically develops gradually over a period of time. The development of this condition can take months, sometimes even years, of not getting enough iron. There are rarely any symptoms in it's early stages and usually by the time you do start noticing symptoms, the condition is already very severe. Some of these symptoms are feeling tired regardless of how much sleep you get, chronic fatigue or extreme lack of energy (similar to how you feel when you have the flu), muscle weakness, always being cold (especially in the feet and hands) and a hard time 'warming up', rapid heartbeat or palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, lightheadedness, brittle nails, hair loss, swollen hands, feet and ankles, pica disorder (craving unusual things such as clay or ice, or an unusual craving for usual foods) and even chest pains because the heart is forced to work harder and faster to compensate for the low blood levels.

It's a delicate balancing act to maintain proper iron levels in your body based on how much you take in and lose daily. Iron comes in to the body from the food you eat and from the body recycling old red blood cells. The human body normally absorbs 1mg of iron a day and loses the same amount each day through the body's natural elimination processes. If you are not taking in enough, or absorbing enough of what you take in, iron levels slowly begin to drop and you will become anemic. The same goes if you are losing more iron than you take in or absorb each day.

Who is at Risk?

As stated above, there are two major ways in which one can become iron deficient. Not absorbing enough from your diet either by not eating enough iron rich foods or your body's inability to adequately absorb iron.

When your body is not getting what it needs to function properly from the foods you eat, it is called malnutrition. This could stem from a poor diet, either not eating the proper foods or not eating enough of the proper foods. Following a strict vegetarian diet sometimes can cause an iron deficiency, but it doesn't have to since dark green leafy vegetables contain iron. Iron deficiency could also stem from the body's inability to properly absorb the iron you take in. This is sometimes hereditary, due to certain digestive ailments such as Celiac sprue or Chron's disease, or the result of surgery on the stomach or small intestine. Your body can most easily absorb iron from meat, especially red meat such as liver or beef. If iron deficiency is due to poor absorption, increasing your vitamin C may aid in this matter since the body needs vitamin C to help in the iron absorption process. Below are lists of iron and vitamin C rich foods. Check with your doctor to see if there are some simple changes you can make to get more iron and or vitamin C in your regular diet.

Iron Rich Foods

  • Red meat such as beef or liver
  • Other meat such as chicken, turkey or pork
  • Seafood such as fish and shellfish
  • Spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables
  • Peanuts, peanut butter and almonds
  • Eggs
  • Peas, lentils, and white, red or baked beans
  • Dried fruits such as raisins, apricots and peaches
  • Prune Juice
  • Some cereals, breads and pastas (read the label)

Vitamin C Rich Foods

  • Citrus fruits such as oranges, tangerines and grapefruit
  • Other fruits such as kiwi, mango, apricots, strawberries, cantaloupe and watermelon
  • Vegetables such as broccoli, peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes
  • Leafy green vegetables such as romaine lettuce, turnip greens and spinach

The second way to develop iron deficiency anemia is to lose iron faster than you are absorbing it. The most common cause of this, as well as the most common cause over-all for iron deficiency anemia, is due to chronic blood loss. When you lose blood it does double damage because you are losing actual red blood cells, and since blood contains iron, you are also losing the iron necessary for your bone marrow to make new ones. The most common cause of this is through monthly menstruation cycles; therefore, women during their childbearing years are at a higher risk for iron deficiency anemia. In pre-menopausal women, menorrhagia (heavy menstrual cycles) is the most common cause of anemia. Iron supplements are important for women before and after pregnancy because pregnancy itself and breast feeding can increase iron deficiency.

Many women in their childbearing years are, at times, a little anemic due to monthly menstrual cycles. Post-menopausal women and men however do not have reason to develop iron deficiency anemia for this reason. Iron deficiency in these two groups would suggest that there is some other source of blood loss. Most often this blood loss comes from the digestive system for one reason or another. Chronic blood loss from the digestive tract is quite common. It doesn't take a large amount of blood loss, only about 1-2 teaspoons daily, to exceed iron absorption. Typically with blood loss this small in the digestive tract it is undetectable because it is digested with food and expelled through the bodies natural elimination process. This slow, invisible blood loss is called occult bleeding. Some possible causes of occult bleeding are hiatal hernia, peptic ulcers, acid reflux, stomach and colon polyps, stomach and colon cancer, colitis, hemorrhoids and others. If you are a post-menopausal woman or man with iron deficiency anemia, your doctor will most likely refer you to a specialist for digestive diseases or gastroenterologist for evaluation and further treatment.



What Do I Do if I am Anemic?

If you are experiencing signs and symptoms of anemia and think you may be anemic, you should see your doctor immediately to express your concerns. He will order blood work and possibly other tests. These tests will determine whether or not you are anemic, what type of anemia you have and what is the cause of your anemia. Once that is determined your doctor will come up with a treatment plan for you. This could involve seeing a specialist to evaluate and treat another disease or condition causing the anemia or other methods to directly treat the anemia itself. There are many options in the treatment of anemia including changes in diet, various forms of supplements such as iron or vitamin C, IV injections, IV therapy and blood transfusions if the iron deficiency is serious enough. Since too much iron in the body can be toxic, it is very important that you consult with a doctor before taking iron supplements.

© Anglfire693, 2009

What exactly is Anemia?

What is Sickle-Cell Anemia?

More by this Author


Comments 17 comments

Cagsil profile image

Cagsil 7 years ago from USA or America

Very informative Hub. Also, nicely written. Thank you for sharing.


anglfire693 profile image

anglfire693 7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan Author

Thanks! I have been dealing with Anemia for a couple of years now...I was clueless when they told me I had it...so I figured I might be able to help some others who might be going through that same confusion I was.


Mekenzie profile image

Mekenzie 7 years ago from Michigan

I have pernicious anemia which is the inability to absorb B-12. Easy to treat with sublingual B12. Thanks for getting the word out there to help other women. Many of my hubs are written in an effort to share my experiences and hopefully touch lives and help others! Blessings dear Anglfire


anglfire693 profile image

anglfire693 7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan Author

Hi Mekenzie! The anemia articles are part of a series which I have put on hold due to trying to write some holiday articles. I am also anemic, iron deficiency anemia, and have been for a couple of years. I didn't know anything about it and had been living with a pica disorder for over a year. I was eating an entire watermelon (or more)a day, my craving for it was insatiable! Everyone laughed because I literally took watermelons with me wherever I went! It was very expensive in the winter months. Then about 2 months before I was diagnosed, I added pretzels to this, an entire big bag a day in addition to the watermelon. My gums and tongue were constantly sore due to irritation from the salt on the pretzels and my lips were so dry from it, especially in the corners. My mouth LITERALLY started to split in the corners to the point that I couldn't really open it or talk without tearing it more. I could however get it open enough to slide in the little pretzel sticks and cut the watermelon small enough to eat it. And I did. People used to say, "just quit eating the pretzels"...but I literally couldn't! For months before I was diagnosed, I was so weak and exhausted all the time. I was popping NoDoz with diet Pepsi and it didn't even help. One day, for no reason ONE of my ankles was really swollen, but it didn't hurt so I didn't worry aboutit, just thought it was swollen from the heat, although I did think it was odd that it was just my right ankle. After about a week a co-worker noticed it as I had capri's on and her going on about it brought my boss over and he told me to leave work immediately and go to Urgent Care. I went and along with a battery of tests they drew blood. When the results came back 3 or 4 days later they were calling my phone all day at work. Finally when I got out of work, I called them back and they said I needed to come in ASAP, so I went in right then and there and that is when they told me I was anemic. My hemoglobin was a 6!! I literally could have died. I had been living with very strong symptoms for so long and had no idea that they were "symptoms"...obviously people around me didn't either because everyone thought it was "cute" or "funny" about how much watermelon I ate. Anyway, this is why I feel it is important to get the word out more so people won't end up like I did, or worse.

I am glad that you are managing your anemia with the B12 shots! I obviously had to have a transfusion, and now I take iron supplements as well as go to a hematologist For IV iron therapy (Venefor). It's weekly IV's anywhere from 4-10 weeks depending on how long it takes to get my hemoglobin up. Once it is up, I'm good for three months...and then the process starts all over. But it is much better than how I was living (wasn't living).

(sorry so long, I am just very passionate about this and will take every opportunity to spread the word!)


Mekenzie profile image

Mekenzie 6 years ago from Michigan

I'm glad you took time to explain more here in your comment - I hope people will find this and read it.. or later perhaps you can write another hub. I think you'll help a lot of people identify their symptoms. Blessings!


anglfire693 profile image

anglfire693 6 years ago from Detroit, Michigan Author

Good Idea Mekenzie! Another hub! I think I will plan on doing that. Maybe people will relate more by hearing my story instead of reading about boring facts! Thank you for the idea!


G Miah profile image

G Miah 6 years ago from Muslim Nation

Anglfire, thank you for this information as it is clearly detailed and very helpful. A family member has been diagnosed with mild anaemia and by reading your hub plus advice from the GP he may be able to overccome the illness.


nikitha p profile image

nikitha p 6 years ago from India

very informative, nice hub


misty 6 years ago

Hi i was just diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia and have had 4 iv treatments of venefor. I had maybe about 2 good days where i felt back to my normal self and then i felt like i crashed again. I go this week for a checkup blood work and one last treatment. Does it sound normal not to feel better after 4 treatments? I eat right, excersize and even that is so hard right now since im soo exhausted. I just want to sleep for a week! Thanks!


rekha 6 years ago

During 2007-2008 I was chewing cuminseeds/saunf/ajwain etc all the time and i was finding myself lighter than before actually i lost several kilos of weight too then one day i found my hb as low as 8.6gm/dl then i was under treatment for i year and i was alright but i forgot my own episode of being anemic

since 6 months i am feeling weak tired and started eating saunf always craved for starch but one day i simply went to check out my hb and i was shocked to see my hb as low as 6.8 now i am on iron supplemants


Chris 5 years ago

Anglfire, thanks for the article. I, just like you, could not stop eating the pretzels. Luckily, I took my daughter to the doctor for something entirely different. Our doctor, who is a lifelong friend, wasn't crazy about the 'way I looked' and sent me for blood work. My level was down to a 7. As far as symptoms, I was also going through menopause due to an emergency hysterectomy. I though that the heart palpitations, tiredness,etc. was all a part of that. That was almost a year ago. I'm going through test after test to rule out an array of diseases. I still blame the anemia on the blood loss the month prior to the hysterectomy. I feel like I never rebounded.


lisa 5 years ago

Thank you so much my hgb is 10. but my consern in i was told i have internal bleed, hope it is found and no worries, i also have R>A> so that eats up the red cell that's how it works your body then attacts you in joints ect. so i was hopefull that their was no bleed was, so after reading what you have , and are going through i am more hopefull again thanks.


hotwebideas profile image

hotwebideas 4 years ago from New York

Thanks for this hub. You explained everything in great detail. I was diagnosed a few months ago with anemia and my doctor told me to take iron supplements, so I am. I used to wake up at 4PM in the morning, but now I have trouble doing that. I think the iron pills are helping me to get up early again without spending 2 hours trying to, well, wake up.

I found your hub, because this is what I am focusing on in Hubpages these days. Thanks again - Bruce


BONNIE822 4 years ago

I HAVE BEEN DEALING WITH LOW IRON AND LOW RED BLOOD COUNT FOR THE PAST TWO YEARS NOW. IT SEEMS EVERY THREE MONTHS I AM RUSHED TO THE EMG ROOM WHERE MY RED BLOOD COUNT IS BETWEEN FIVE AND SIX..NEXT IS A TWO OR THREE DAY STAY WITH GETTING BLOOD TRANSFUSSIONS..THEN I GET ALL THE TEST UPPER AND LOWER GI..YES I HAVE HAD POLYPS AND BLEEDING OF THE ULSERS AMONG OTHER THINGS HOWEVER NOTHING EXPLAINS WHY I CAN'T SEEM TO GET BETTER. WHEN I GET OUT OF THE HOSP WE THEN GO THROUGH TWO TREATMENTS OF IRON IV A WEEK FOR SIX WEEKS..ALL THE WHILE I FEEL TIRED AND IN SO MUCH PAIN..WE DID DO THE CAMARA TEST AND IT SHOWED NOTHING..MY DR;S THINK THERE IS A SLOW BLEED FROM SOMEWHERE BUT DON'T KNOW WHERE. AT FORTY FIVE IM STARTING TO THINK I WILL NEVER FEEL WELL AGAIN OR BE BACK TO MYSELF. I ALSO RECEIVE B 12 SHOTS EVERY MONTH AND NO THEY DON'T GIVE ME ENERGY. I WOULD LOVE FOR A DR TO SAY OK WE KNOW WHAT' WRONG AND WE CAN FIX IT. INSTEAD I HAVE FOUR DR'S WHO ARE JUST AS LOST AS I AM...ONE IDIOT EVEN ASKED IF I WAS SELLING MY BLOOD. I ALSO TAKE THE FOLIC ACID PILLS..IF THERE IS SOMEONE OUT THERE WHO HAS THE SAME ISSUES PLEASE WRITE ME ALONG WITH ALL THIS IM NEVER HUNGRY AND HAVE TO FORCE MYSELF TO EAT..ANY HELP I WOULD LOVE HEAR.I JUST WANT A DR WHO CAN FIX ME


EEKKGG 3 years ago

I have low iron. Here are my symptoms when my iron drops. I get baby fine hairs at my hairline indicating hair loss. I have very brittle nails. I get into a memory "fog". I try to say something, but I can't find the words. I have sweating spells. I get canker sores. My hands and ankles swell. Headaches around the back of my head. I take an iron supplement and it keeps it at bay.


amranuddin 3 years ago

Thank you for getting such advice regarding hamoglobin.Thanks..........


Alexandria 20 months ago

Hi I've had anemia for past four years now and I thought it was under control because doc said that my anemia levels r fine but the levels in my bones are very low he said that they don't hold iron like they should but my anemia level was normal I'm so totally lost I don't get it. I take iron 2x a day along with vitamin c the doctor said that should help so we will see .

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working