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
- 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
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