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The basics on iron-deficiency anaemia
Iron-deficiency anaemia is the most common form of anaemia in the world. People with low levels of iron in their bodies are unable to produce haemoglobin, an iron-rich protein that is an essential component of healthy red blood cells. Without enough haemoglobin, the body can’t deliver oxygen from the lungs to other tissues and organs. People with this anaemia experience growing fatigue, and may have periodic shortness of breath following even minor exertion. If left untreated, iron-deficiency anaemia can cause serious damage to the heart and other major organs.
Pregnant women with iron-deficiency anaemia run the risk of having a premature delivery, or a baby with low birth weight. Children with iron-deficiency anaemia have been shown to have stunted growth and behavioral and learning problems. About 20 per cent of all women and 50 per cent of pregnant women lack sufficient iron in their bodies. Estimates show that 30 to 70 per cent of people in the poorest countries in the world have iron-deficiency anaemia.
Causes of iron-deficiency anaemia
People can have low iron levels in their bodies for several reasons:
“Blood loss. Losing blood also means losing the iron contained in those blood cells. If you don't have enough iron stored in your body and bone marrow, you can develop iron-deficiency anaemia.
Women with heavy menstrual periods may experience low iron levels. Internal bleeding in the digestive tract due to chronic aspirin use, ulcers, polyps, or cancer, can can cause anemia. Other causes include bleeding due to injury or trauma.
• Poor diet. Food is an important source of iron, but the body absorbs only about one milligramme (mg) of iron for every ten to 20 mg ingested through food. People who don't eat iron-rich foods regularly—or who eat too many foods that interfere with iron absorption—can develop iron-deficiency anemia.
• Body changes. An adolescent growth spurt, or a pregnancy can cause increased red blood cell production, which can deplete the person’s iron stores.
• Difficulty absorbing iron. Conditions such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease can make it tough for the body to absorb enough iron. Gastric bypass surgery can also interfere with iron absorption, as can overuse of antacids.
The above causes of iron deficiency put the following groups at the highest risk of this type of anaemia:
• Children who are experiencing a growth spurt
• People who don't ingest enough iron because of a poor diet
• Pregnant or breastfeeding women
• Women with heavy menstrual periods
• People who have ulcers or gastrointestinal problems
Treatment for iron-deficiency anaemia
Iron-deficiency anaemia is easily treated once it is caught. You will likely feel tired and lethargic for some time as your body’s iron levels build up again, which can take months.
Treatment depends on the cause:
• Blood loss. If you experience internal bleeding, your doctor will need to find the source of the bleeding and treat it. This could involve medicine to treat ulcers, or surgery to treat bleeding polyps or cancerous tumours. Women with heavy menstrual flows might be put on birth control to reduce the severity of their periods.
• Diet. You can easily get more iron by ingesting more iron-rich foods like red meat, chicken, turkey, pork, fish, and shellfish. You also can get iron from non-meat sources like spinach, peanuts, and dried fruits, although the body tends to absorb iron from meat more easily. You can take an iron supplement—but you should only take it under your doctor’s supervision, as too much iron can be toxic. You also should increase your intake of vitamin C, because it helps the body more easily absorb iron. If you’re low in iron, you should limit your intake of tea and soybeans, which may interfere with the body’s absorption of iron.
Iron-fortified foods may help, too. A recent study found that milk fortified with iron increased iron stores in toddlers who were not anaemic. In the same study, non-anaemic children who increased their consumption of red meat kept their iron levels from decreasing. Pregnant women and children going through growth spurts should be sure to eat a diet rich in iron to prevent iron-deficiency anemia.
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