If you are a woman that has had less energy lately, been more irritable and weak, you may want to have your primary care physician check your iron status. It’s not that men don’t get iron deficiency anemia, or IDA, but it’s more common in women. Other symptoms of IDA include pale skin, gums, nail beds and eyelid linings as well as headaches and low blood pressure.
The blood that circulates throughout the body performs many functions. It delivers oxygen, removes carbon dioxide and carries nutrients. Hormones are transported by the blood, which allows parts of the body to communicate with each other. Most of the cells that make up our blood are red blood cells. Anemia occurs when there isn’t enough hemoglobin in the blood and there are too few red blood cells. Anemias are the most common blood disorder, of which there are several types. They are usually caused by an iron deficiency.
Iron deficiency occurs when the body needs more iron than it is getting. In women, iron deficiency is almost always caused by long-term blood loss from heavy menstrual periods, peptic ulcer disease, long-term aspirin use or possibly certain cancers. It may also occur if there is not enough iron-containing food in a person’s diet or if there is poor absorption of the iron.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple reliable test for iron deficiency. The most reliable test is the serum ferritin assay. This measures the amount of ferritin, a major iron storage protein, and reflects the amount of iron stored in your body. Normal serum ferritin values for women are 10-150 nanograms per milliliter of blood. Lower readings indicate iron deficiency.
Treatment of IDA
Treatment of IDA includes removing the cause of blood loss if possible and curing the anemia by correcting iron deficiency.
Diet alone isn’t the cure for anemia. It isn’t possible for a person to eat enough iron-rich food in order to get the amount of iron needed. To help bring iron levels back to normal, oral iron supplements are often prescribed. Injections are necessary in extreme cases or when oral supplementation is not suitable because there is an underlying problem, such as malabsorption that often happens when people have had bariatric of gastric bypass surgery.
Iron replacement therapy usually isn’t very expensive. Iron pills shouldn’t be enteric-coated or taken with meals or antacids, as this can reduce the amount of iron absorbed. Take iron pills between meals and do not take them with milk, calcium, tea or coffee, as this may decrease absorption. Taking iron with a source of vitamin C, such as a glass of orange juice, will increase the absorption.
Seniors may be slower to respond to iron replacement therapy, so it is best to continue taking supplements for an additional six months after the cause is treated. If only the anemia is treated, it is likely that the problem will come back. It is important to find and treat the cause of the anemia.
Don’t be alarmed, but all good oral iron preparations will cause stools to appear black. This is not an indication of blood loss.
The key to prevention of IDA that’s not due to disease or blood loss is proper nutrition. Plenty of iron-rich and easily absorbed foods such as liver, fish, poultry, eggs, legumes, potatoes and rice should be eaten. Other good food sources of iron include raisins, molasses, oysters and spinach. Iron is absorbed more easily by the body if iron supplements or iron-rich foods are taken with a good source of vitamin C.
Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition instructor at Eastern Maine Community College who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.