Iron is a mineral required by the body for healthy growth and development. This essential element aids in the production of hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells. When there is a lack of iron in the body, it is known as iron-deficiency anemia.
Iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, resulting in symptoms like irritability, enlarged spleen, abnormal paleness, increased heart rate, lack of energy, and a desire to eat odd substances such as ice or dirt (a condition called pica).
Depending on the cause of your low iron, you may find that supplementing this mineral doesn’t make your condition improve. It is important to understand what causes low iron and the effects that certain conditions can have on your iron levels and overall health.
What Causes Low Iron?
Iron is most commonly stored in the body in the hemoglobin. Iron is required to create hemoglobin, the part of the red blood cell that carries oxygen and eliminates carbon dioxide from the body. Low iron can have a variety of causes, such as the following:
- Blood Loss – Blood loss can cause your iron levels to plummet, resulting in iron deficiency anemia. Common causes of blood loss that can lead to low iron include injuries, GI bleeding, and menstrual bleeding.
- Diet Low in Iron – Iron can be consumed through the foods we eat. However, just 1 mg of iron is absorbed by the body for every 10 to 20 mg of iron ingested. Eating a healthy, balanced diet that is iron-rich can help prevent deficiency.
- Gastrointestinal Tract Issues – Abnormalities that develop in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract can affect how iron is absorbed, resulting in iron deficiency anemia. Some medications or surgeries can also stop stomach acid production which can lower iron absorption.
- Body Changes – Pregnancy, lactation, or even growth spurts in children can lead to an increased iron requirement. Individuals going through certain body changes may require more iron and without it, may suffer a deficiency.
Certain medical conditions can also contribute to malabsorption and in turn, affect iron absorption. Some of these conditions include:
Celiac disease, also referred to as gluten-sensitive enteropathy, is a type of heredity immune disease. This condition is caused by an abnormal cell-mediated immune response to foods containing gluten, such as rye, wheat, and barley. In some genetically-susceptible people, the activation of a cell-mediated immune response can result in damage to intestinal tissues.
In individuals with celiac disease, the prevalence of iron deficiency anemia is about 46 percent. This condition is more common in adults than children. Diagnosing celiac disease may require a variety of testing, such as small bowel mucosal biopsies, serological testing, and unambiguous response to a diet free of gluten.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
People with inflammatory bowel disease may develop iron deficiency anemia due to chronic blood loss from the gastrointestinal tract caused by poor absorption in the small intestinal mucosa. Inflammatory bowel disease may include several conditions, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. In IBD patients, the prevalence of iron deficiency anemia is approximately 63 percent. Diagnosing IBD typically requires a combination of endoscopic, clinical, and histological practices.
H. Pylori Infection
Similar to other malabsorption conditions, an H. pylori infection may contribute to iron deficiency anemia. H. pylori infections often cause gastric ulcers or gastric malignancy in some people. Iron deficiency caused by an H. pylori infection generally presents in people who have an increased demand for iron, such as children, pregnant women, postpartum women, or premenopausal women.
How Is Low Iron Treated?
Treating low iron requires a comprehensive evaluation, laboratory testing, and in-house analysis. Once the source of the inflammation has been identified, treatment can begin to increase iron levels at a healthy rate. Also, speak with your naturopathic doctor about what to look for in a quality iron supplement.
Dr Tasreen Alibhai, ND