Iron deficiency is common among Americans. But certain groups are more at risk for it than others, like women, children, vegetarians, and people who give blood frequently. Not getting enough iron can set your body back. That is because iron helps create blood, transport oxygen, fight infections, and produces energy.
How do you know if you are iron deficient? One in five American women has it. Of course, it affects men too. More than three million people suffer from iron deficiency anemia nationwide. The question is, are you one of them?
Two problems make anemia more dangerous than it needs to be.
Anemia is associated with different health conditions, and often it’s far from the first health problem identified by a doctor.
The other problem is that the onset of anemia can be gradual, making people tend to ignore or not notice it.
Whether it comes about suddenly or gradually, anemia should be taken seriously.
Being anemic makes your heart pump more blood to make up for the low oxygen in your blood and making the heart work overtime in this way can lead to other more severe health complications.
What Is Anemia?
Simply put, a person is anemic when the number of red blood cells circulating through their body is lower than normal.
Red blood cells use hemoglobin to carry oxygen from the lungs to every cell in your body. Therefore, a person with anemia begins to show symptoms related to lack of oxygen.
Typically, people who aren’t getting enough of these nutrients can experience any of the following symptoms: fatigue, weakness, numbness, dark circles beneath the eyes, paleness, tar-like black stools, restless leg syndrome, craving for ice, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, a swollen tongue, and cold hands and feet.
What Causes Anemia?
Red blood cell count can drop for two reasons:
- A problem with producing them.
- Something causing the loss of red blood cells.
There is a different set of possible causes for each.
A problem with production of red blood cells may be caused by:
- Chemotherapy. Chemo affects bone marrow where red blood cells are produced
- Iron deficiency that is caused by a slow-bleeding ulcer, or heavy menstruation. Vegetarians may also not get enough iron.
- Lack of Vitamin B12 or Folate. Both of these are required for red blood cell formation.
- Kidney disease. When you have kidney disease, the kidneys can’t produce erythropoietin, a hormone that promotes red blood cell development.
- Chronic inflammation. Cancer, autoimmune diseases, and long-term infections such as hepatitis interfere with red blood cell production.
A problem with the loss of red blood cells may be caused by:
- Abnormal or excessive bleeding can cause a severe loss of red blood cells. This usually occurs because of injury or trauma.
- Chronic bleeding. The stomach, small intestine, or bowel can bleed due to cancer or peptic ulcer. Daily doses of aspirin or NSAIDs can also cause bleeding of the stomach lining.
- Frequent blood draws or blood donations
- Heavy menstrual bleeding.
Testing For Anemia
If you suspect that you or a loved one are anemic, have your doctor perform a blood test known as a Complete Blood Count or CBC. Among other things, this test measures your:
- Red blood cell count
- Hematocrit (how much of your blood is made of red blood cells)
These three numbers together will determine if you are anemic and how serious it is.
If you are diagnosed with anemia, it’s essential that your doctor talks with you about the cause, as well as how long it’s been present and whether or not it’s a chronic condition. Only then can you receive a plan of action to follow.
If your levels are low, your doctor will probably prescribe an iron supplement. Even if your levels aren’t low, it’s a good idea to take a supplement that includes iron if you fall into one of the at-risk groups. You can also get iron from foods like beef, beef liver, chicken liver, shellfish (especially oysters), beans, and whole grains.
Your chances of having iron-deficiency anemia are higher if you’re a woman under 50, you’re a vegetarian, you eat a poor diet or if you donate blood frequently. People over 65 are also more likely to eat foods that are too low in iron.
If you fall into any of these categories and are worried that you’re anemic, try this quick home self-test to see how you fare:
- Press down on your fingernail for two seconds, pressing against the nailbed. When you release the pressure, your nail will be white but should turn pink within a second or two. The longer it takes for your fingernail to return to its natural pink color, the more likely you have anemia.
Once you confirm that iron deficiency anemia is causing your strange symptoms, you can do everything in your power to give your body the iron it needs.
You can also take an iron supplement. But don’t depend on the supplement your doctor may prescribe you, especially if it’s ferrous sulfate. This type of iron can irritate your stomach, lymphatic system, and liver.