Iron deficiency is a sly one. The symptoms are so connected with other more common conditions, that it can often be overlooked. Take shortness of breath, for example. Asthmatics will be familiar with that feeling of not being able to squeeze quite enough air into their lungs, however this could be a tell tale sign of iron deficiency, or anaemia.
Whilst statistics specifically relating to iron deficiency don't exist in the clear-cut manner we would like, we can look at figures associated with anaemia – the most common blood condition in the world– when researching the impact of iron deficiency.
It is estimated that 1.6 billion people in the world have anaemia - that's 25% of the population. In terms of severity and numbers, the problem is greatest in developing countries in Africa and South-East Asia. There is a clear link between poverty and iron deficiency, with the risk of dying in childbirth very high for these women. Iron deficiency can affect a large number of pregnant women in developed countries such as the UK as well, however there are many other symptoms that you can see across both genders.
You may not experience all of these symptoms, however when several are teamed together, you can gain a better understanding of whether you have an iron deficiency and find the right supplements and/or treatments to aid.
Fatigue and a general feeling of tiredness the majority of the time is the most common symptom as it is directly linked to those red blood cells not transporting enough oxygen around the body. This explains the other symptoms you may be experiencing such as heart palpitations, a pale complexion and the tendency for injuries to become infected. Your red blood cells are essential in your body's recovery, with a deficiency leaving your immune system under attack. It also happens to be a symptom that is difficult to detect – who doesn't feel exhausted every once and while? However, if you are finding your exhaustion is frequent and controlling (including factors such as an inability to focus) then your fatigue may be linked to an iron deficiency.
In women, heavy, painful and/or long periods can often be present alongside other symptoms. In fact, this is is the number one cause. It is a 'two steps forward and one step back' scenario of your body losing too much blood then not recuperating quickly enough before the next month. Your doctor may advise taking oral contraceptives to help lighten and regulate your periods, which should help your body retain more iron.
Does your diet really have that much of an impact?
The causes of iron deficiency are a little more complicated than just your diet. Whilst you can adjust your diet to include more iron-filled foods such as beans, nuts, dried fruit and wholegrains (if you are pregnant, this might be something your GP has already suggested) there is little evidence to show that it is your diet causing the deficiency. In fact, it is most likely to do with an inability to absorb enough iron from the food you're eating. This is linked to intestinal disorder, especially if you've had surgery.
The most common cause for iron deficiency is blood loss, and that's why there is such a strong link with women who suffer from heavy periods. Other causes relating to both sexes might be internal blood loss through peptic ulcer, a hiatal hernia, a colon polyp or colorectal cancer, all linked to your intestines.
When pregnant, your body needs that extra iron supply to ensure your baby is getting all the necessary oxygen and nutrients, not to mention the best blood supply possible.
Some individuals will develop iron deficiency anaemia if they have chronic kidney disease (CKD). In terms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), this condition causes swelling in the digestive system and is another strong cause of ID. Other related conditions include oesophagitis, schistosomiasis and haematuria (although this is rare).
Iron deficiency does have a range of causes that can often go undetected. However, if you're experiencing these symptoms, there are treatments and supplements available to help, so speak to your doctor about the options.