Top tips to manage iron deficiency

Iron deficiency anaemia (IDA) is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide and is especially prevalent in women and children – but it can be managed.

Iron deficiency (ID) is the leading cause of anaemia in the world, yet it often goes unrecognised. In a recent study of iron status in a healthy South African adult population, the prevalence of ID was 39,8 % in all participants, and as high as 56,6 % in females. ID occurs when the iron stores in the body are becoming depleted and can lead to anaemia.

To manage anaemia it helps to understand it. “It occurs when the level of red blood cells in blood is too low,” explains Dr Jon Patricios, a specialist in sports medicine. “The most common cause is inadequate amounts of the mineral iron and this is called iron-deficiency anaemia. Iron is required to make a protein called haemoglobin.”  Haemoglobin is responsible for oxygen transport around the body.

Iron-deficiency anaemia can be caused by poor absorption or internal bleeding . A deficiency can have serious repercussions, from delayed physical, mental and social development in children, to ill health and lethargy in adults, and reduced capacity to study and work .

“Children at greater risk for iron deficiency include premature babies, those drinking unfortified baby formula, and those who drink cow’s or goat’s milk before age 1,” says Dr Patricios. Cow’s milk has little iron and has calcium, which can inhibit iron absorption.  

For adolescent girls and adult women, the cause of deficiency is primarily heavy menstrual bleeding, says Dr Patricios. “Pregnant and breastfeeding women also have greater demands for iron as iron is lost in breast milk.” Their iron stores must serve their increased blood volume and provide haemoglobin for the growing foetus.

“It’s vital to recognise the signs of anaemia,” he says. These include extreme fatigue and weakness; pale skin; chest pain; fast or irregular heartbeat; shortness of breath; headache; dizziness or lightheadedness; cold hands and feet and tingling legs; inflammation or soreness of your tongue; brittle nails; poor appetite; and unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances such ice or dirt.