Iron deficiency is the leading cause of anaemia worldwide. A recent South African study revealed that almost 40% of participants had low iron levels, with just over half of them being women…
Despite it being such a common problem, it’s often undiagnosed because the symptoms can be a little vague, like feeling tired all the time and having frequent headaches.
Plus, how much iron our body needs is not static: teenagers experiencing growth spurts, women who experience heavy menstruation or who are breastfeeding, and the elderly will all need more iron.
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What is anaemia?
Your body uses iron – which we get from certain food – to produce haemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells which helps carry oxygen throughout the body. Normally, the body absorbs about 1 to 2mg of iron per day, which is used to make new red blood cells. What the body doesn’t use is stored, like an emergency back-up of sorts, and is released when it’s needed (if you have sudden blood loss, for example).
However, if you’re not getting enough iron, these back-up stores are activated, giving you low iron levels which causes symptoms like fatigue and poor concentration. If things get worse, it turns into anaemia: when your iron levels are so low that it affects haemoglobin production. With hardly any new red blood cells being made, less oxygen is carried through your bloodstream – and without enough oxygen, your body can’t function properly.
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Are you at risk?
You’re especially at risk if you get heavy periods, you have chronic blood loss from a stomach ulcer, you’re pregnant, you have an intestinal disorder like Crohn’s disease, or if you eat a diet that lacks or is low in iron.
10 signs you could be anaemic:
Symptoms of anaemia can be easily overlooked. Read through the 10 signs below to find out if you should book an appointment with your doctor:
Chronic fatigue – Feeling constantly drained of energy throughout the day could be your body’s way of telling you that you need more oxygen. If you suffer from low iron levels, this could indicate that there is less haemoglobin to transport oxygen to your organs; your body uses oxygen to break down nutrients for energy.
Shortness of breath – Winded after one flight of stairs? It may not be just a lack of fitness. Low haemoglobin levels can lead to reduced levels of oxygen in your bloodstream, which means your lungs have to work harder in order to pull more air into your system.
Headaches or dizziness – Feeling faint or light-headed, in addition to headaches, are indicators that your brain isn’t getting enough oxygen.
Irregular heartbeat – Just like your lungs have to work harder, an irregular heartbeat could signal that your heart is working overtime to circulate what little oxygen is present in your system to your organs, so that they can produce energy.
Chest pain – All the tissues in your body need oxygen in order to function which is why iron performs such an important function. When the heart doesn’t get enough oxygen due to low iron levels, it behaves as though it is experiencing impaired blood flow – this will feel like a heart attack in extreme cases.
Tingling legs – Low iron levels can sometimes lead to pins and needles in your legs as the blood being circulated is not oxygenated enough.
Pale skin – When your body doesn’t receive enough oxygen, as will be the case if you suffer from low iron or haemoglobin levels, blood is redirected to your heart and brain first as a matter of priority. The lack of blood flow to your skin may leave you with an ashy, dull complexion.
Cold hands and feet – Just like the skin, hands and feet are also left with reduced blood flow when your body doesn’t have enough oxygen, which may lead you to experience chilliness in your hands and feet.
Brittle nails – All living things need oxygen to grow, and your nails are no exception. If oxygen is transported to your brain and heart first, your nails will only get their share much later. As a result, your nails become weak and prone to damage.
Craving things that aren’t food – Scientists aren’t exactly sure why some people want to eat things like ice and dirt when they’re anaemic, but some studies show that once an iron supplement is taken, the urge to eat things like sand tends to go away. What a relief!
What can you do to prevent anaemia?
If you think you may have low iron levels or you’re anaemic, it’s best to visit your GP and get a blood test. You may need to change your diet and/or take iron supplements (but don’t take these if you’re not sure about your levels; too much iron can be toxic). If you have low iron levels or you’re anaemic, make sure you eat foods that are rich in vitamin C, as this helps with iron absorption, and avoid consuming iron-absorption inhibitors like dairy and caffeine within an hour of your main meal.
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While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.