Iron deficiency

Originally Published: October 22, 1999 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: April 18, 2014
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Dear Alice,

I've just been told that I lack iron in my blood. So, I'm curious, what is the worst thing that could happen if I don't do anything about it?

Dear Reader,

Iron is an essential part of blood. A constant supply of iron is important for the continual production of new red blood cells. Red blood cells contain hemoglobin, a complex protein-iron compound that carries oxygen from the lungs to all of the body's cells. If your blood levels of iron are low, your body will have trouble maintaining a normal level of hemoglobin. As a result, you can develop iron deficiency anemia. The symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include:

  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • headaches
  • pale skin color and/or eye linings
  • tingling in the hands and feet

Many people who are anemic are extremely tired all the time; some even have difficulty with mental function. In some extreme cases of iron deficiency, people may develop pica, or cravings for non-food substances like clay, dirt, ice, or laundry starch. When iron levels are restored to normal, these cravings stop.

Since iron plays a role in many important biochemical functions in the body, why not be more proactive about your health? Add more iron to your diet. The form of iron found in animal foods, called heme iron, is better absorbed than the form from plant foods (non-heme iron). Good sources of iron include:

  • beef liver
  • clams
  • oysters
  • other lean meats (such as beef or pork)

Beans, wheat germ, and whole grains are some plant sources of iron. If heme iron is eaten at the same time as non-heme iron, your body will absorb more of the non-heme iron than if the non-heme iron were eaten alone. Eating or drinking something with Vitamin C along with your food can also help your body more easily absorb iron from both animal and plant foods. For more information, see Sources of Iron in the Alice! Nutrition& Physical Activity archives.

The recommended daily intake of iron depends on sex and age. Here's the breakdown:

 
14 - 18 years old

 

19 - 50 years old

 

51 + years old

 

Female

15 mg/day

 

18 mg/day

 

8 mg/day

 

Male

11 mg/day

 

8 mg/day

 

8 mg/day

 

(Note: The recommendation for women is higher than it is for men to make up for blood loss during menstruation.)

Some groups of people that are more likely to be at risk of iron deficiency include:

  • pregnant women
  • girls in their teens
  • people with renal or gastrointestinal diseases
  • women of childbearing age who have long and heavy periods
  • vegetarians and vegans
  • athletes who regularly participate in strenuous activity

People in these groups should take special care to get enough iron through their diet and monitor themselves closely for signs of iron deficiency. Some individuals may require supplements to bring their iron levels up, but this is not the answer for everyone. There are side effects from taking iron pills, and it can actually be dangerous. Speak with your health care provider to assess your iron status and determine the most appropriate course of action for you. If you're a student at Columbia, you can make an appointment to see someone by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).

Alice