What Happens If You Don't Get Enough Iron? A Look at the Negative Health Effects of Iron Deficiency
by Benjamin Bunting BA(Hons) PGCert
Written by Ben Bunting: BA, PGCert. (Sport & Exercise Nutrition) // British Army Physical Training Instructor // S&C Coach.
Did you know that the World Health Organization has identified an iron (ferrous) deficiency as the top nutritional disorder in the world?
Studies have found that as many as 2 billion people in the entire world don't have enough iron in their bodies.
Even more shockingly, 30% of the people who have suffered from a long-term deficiency are likely to develop health conditions known as anemia.
Left untreated, a iron deficiency can severely impact a person's health and quality of life.
If you're worried about a deficiency's negative consequences, you may be looking to learn about what happens if you don't get enough iron.
That's why today, we've created this complete guide to help you get a better understanding of what a deficiency is and what can happen when you develop an iron deficiency. Keep reading to learn more!
What Is an Iron Deficiency?
Iron is one of the most important dietary minerals that you can consume. Your body needs the ferrous mineral for several bodily functions. One of the most important bodily functions is transporting oxygen in your blood.
If you don't consume enough ferrous in your daily diet, you run the risk of your body becoming depleted. When you have inadequate iron levels in your body, you can begin to feel lethargic and may even notice a change in your immune system.
You can decrease your chances of developing a deficiency by consuming many foods rich in iron in your diet.
However, it would help if you were careful to never self-diagnose a deficiency, as having iron levels are too high in your body can be extremely dangerous.
What Are the Stages of an Iron Deficiency?
Sadly, a deficiency is a very common problem all around the globe. Some of the most common groups of people that are likely to suffer from a deficiency include:
- Teenage girls
- Lactating women
- Pregnant women
- Menstruating women
Without proper treatment of a deficiency, an individual can develop anemia. The majority of the iron in your body is found in the hemoglobin of your red blood cells.
The hemoglobin is responsible for assisting the red blood cells in carrying oxygen in and throughout your body.
If you don't consume enough iron on a regular basis, your body's stores will eventually deplete.
A depletion of iron in your body can cause:
Iron depletion happens when the hemoglobin levels are normal, but your body has only a little bit of stored iron. When a mineral depletion occurs, many symptoms will usually be presented.
Iron deficiency happens when the stored levels in your body, as well as the levels of ferrous in your blood, are low.
This will result in your hemoglobin levels dropping below average. You may begin to experience symptoms of a deficiency, such as fatigue.
Iron Deficiency Anemia (IDA)
When the hemoglobin levels on your blood are too low, it makes it difficult for your blood to deliver enough oxygen to all of the cells in your body.
At this stage, you will begin to develop several symptoms. Some of the symptoms you can expect to experience include looking pale, fatigued, breathless, and dizzying.
Many people who suffer from IDA also have reduced functioning in their immune system capability. In children who suffer from anemia for too long, their brain development and growth can be severely impacted.
What Happens If You Don't Get Enough Iron?
Some of the symptoms that you make periods with iron deficiency can often go unnoticed.
However, as your irons towards continue to deplete and you develop IDA, you may notice symptoms beginning to develop.
Some of the symptoms that you should keep an eye out for are:
- Extreme fatigue
- Pale skin
- Chest pain
- Fast heartbeat
- Dry skin
- Spoon-shaped fingernails
- Feeling anxious
- Dry hair
- Damaged skin
- Restless legs
- Damaged hair
- Shortness of breath
- Cold feet or hands
- Brittle nails
- Soreness of your tongue
- Lack of appetite
- Unusual cravings for substances that don't have any nutrition to them, such as ice
If you noticed that you have any of these above-listed symptoms, it's important that you see a doctor.
What Are the Most Common Causes of Iron Deficiencies in Adults?
There isn't always one exact cause of iron deficiencies in adults. Some of the most common causes include:
Not Eating Enough Iron
Commonly referred to as inadequate dietary intake, an adult can suffer from a deficiency because they're not consuming enough of the mineral.
There are two main types of iron that you can find in your diet, which is haem iron and non-haem iron. Haem iron comes from animal tissues, fish, and poultry. On the other hand, non-haem iron comes from plants.
Your body has an easier time absorbing the iron that comes from animals than what comes from plants.
One reason that someone may not be getting enough ferrous in their diet is that they have a poorly balanced vegan diet were they aren't eating a wide variety of foods.
Inability to Absorb Iron
In healthy adults, their bodies can absorb up to 15% of the iron that they consume every day. However, some other medical conditions or medications make it difficult for adult bodies to use the iron from food to absorb it into their bodies.
Athletes are prone to experiencing an mineral deficiency. This is because completing a regular exercise will increase the body's need for iron.
For example, somebody who is completing hard training will have an increase in red blood cell production, which creates the need for an increased iron level in the body.
Also, people that are completing vigorous exercises will also lose the ferrous mineral through their sweat.
Chronic blood loss can make it easy for a deficiency to develop. Some of the most common causes of chronic blood loss:
- Regular nosebleeds
- Heavy menstrual periods
- Peptic ulcer
- Intestinal cancer
- Regular blood donation
Managing chronic blood loss can help to balance our mineral deficiency in adults.
Increased Need for Iron
In women that are breastfeeding or pregnant, their bodies need more iron. If there isn't proper mineral consumption that it met, these people can quickly develop an iron deficiency.
Can Iron Be Toxic?
Diagnosing a deficiency without the help of a medical professional can be tempting since you don't need a prescription to access iron supplements. However, if you aren't suffering from an iron deficiency, taking a supplement can be dangerous.
Having too much iron in your body can be toxic and potentially fatal. Also, the symptoms you're experiencing with a deficiency may cause another health condition.
Some of the health conditions that these symptoms can point to are much more serious than anemia or iron deficiency.
Incorrectly self-medicating or self-diagnosing can be dangerous and waste the time you need to seek treatment for another health condition.
Plus, iron supplements won't help you feel any better if a ferrous deficiency isn't the condition that you're suffering from.
Not to mention that taking a supplement that your body doesn't need can interfere with your body's ability to absorb other minerals, such as copper and zinc.
Excessive ferrous levels in the body can cause tissue damage and can even lead to an increased chance of suffering from certain types of cancers or even heart disease.
Diagnosing and Treating Iron Deficiency
If you believe that you are suffering from a ferrous mineral deficiency or anemia, it's important for you to make an appointment with your doctor. Diagnostic tools will be used to exclude the possibility of other illnesses that you could be suffering from that have linked symptoms.
Some of the diagnostic tools used to diagnose your ferrous mineral deficiency include observing your medical history, completing a physical examination, and having blood tests completed.
Treating Iron Deficiency
If you test positive for ferrous deficiency, the treatment that your doctor recommends that you will be dependent upon the state of iron in your body.
In addition, the treatment will also depend on the cause of your mineral deficiency.
If you have iron depletion, your doctor will provide you with information on including more iron-rich foods into your diet.
At around six months, your doctor will check in with you with a blood test to see if your ferrous levels have improved.
If you have iron deficiency, your doctor will provide you with dietary advice.
Many doctors will closely monitor your diet to ensure that you're eating enough foods that are rich in the mineral. They will also guide you away from foods that can interfere with your body's ability to absorb iron, such as coffee and soda.
If your ferrous levels don't improve, your doctor may prescribe you with a supplement.
Underlying Health Problems
If an underlying health problem is causing a ferrous deficiency, your doctor will order tests to investigate the cause. Once a medical cause is identified for your deficiency, appropriate treatment will be given to you.
If you have IDA, your doctor will prescribe you with an appropriate supplement. It may take up to one year for your body to replenish its stores of the mineral. Your doctor will order regular blood tests to monitor the levels in your body.
Did you know?
A study has demonstrated that when iron and vitamin A is supplemented together, it was as effective as hormonal therapy for increasing testosterone levels.
How to Prevent Iron Deficiency
Your body's ability to absorb ferrous minerals can be affected by the type of iron you consume, how much you're consuming, the current ferrous mineral levels in your body, and other dietary factors.
For example, tea makes it difficult for your body to absorb the mineral but vitamin C makes it easier for your body to absorb it which is key as the ferrous mineral is an essential nutrient.
Be sure to talk with your doctor if you're concerned about preventing IDA in yourself or your child. Your doctor can help you arrange a healthier diet to ensure that you're getting enough of the ferrous mineral. Some of the foods your doctor may recommend you eat include:
- Fortified bread
- Fortified breakfast cereal
- Whole-grain cereals
- Vitamin C rich foods, such as vegetables and fruit
- Dried beans
- Fortified pasta
Your doctor may also recommend that you cut back on certain foods that make it difficult for your body to absorb the mineral.
Understanding the Importance of Managing Your Iron Deficiency
So, what happens if you don't get enough iron? Depending on the cause of your mineral deficiency, you and your doctor will need to work together to identify the right treatment plan for you.
If left untreated for too long, you can develop a health condition known as anemia.
Anemia caused by iron deficiency is the most common type of anemia that can be found all around the world.
Understanding the symptoms to look out for can help you prevent your ferrous deficiency from turning into full-blown IDA. It's very dangerous to self-diagnose iron deficiency, as consuming too much iron can potentially fatal.
However, if you are suffering from a deficiency, your deficiency may be a warning sign of another serious health condition.
Making sure that you're eating a well-balanced diet full of foods that are high in nutritional value will make it easier for you to manage your iron deficiency.
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