Ironing out Anemia: It's All About Iron Levels in the Body

Ironing out Anemia: It's All About Iron Levels in the Body

“You look very pale, you could be anemic.”
“Maybe your iron is low, you must eat more red meat.”
“Are you feeling faint? You could be anemic.”

You may have heard one or more of the above statements at some point and not thought too much about it at the time. But have you ever stopped to think what iron does in the body, and what the effects could be of having too little of it to support a healthy system?

In this article, we deep dive into the various roles of iron in the body and how to obtain it, iron deficiency, what causes anemia, and how to treat it.

 Why is Iron So Important In the Body?

The human body requires iron to perform many vital physiological functions. For instance, iron is the key component of hemoglobin that allows red blood cells to transport oxygen throughout the body, and it plays a key role in cell growth and differentiation.

Iron helps to preserve many vital functions in the body, including general energy and focus, gastrointestinal processes, the immune system, and the regulation of body temperature.


The benefits of iron often go unnoticed until a person is not getting enough. Iron deficiency anemia can cause fatigue, heart palpitations, pale skin, and breathlessness.

The Primary Natural Sources of Iron

Iron can be found in red meats, fish, poultry, shellfish, eggs, legumes, grains, and dried fruits.

Iron and Pregnancy:

Iron is vital for all body processes, but particularly pregnancy. Blood volume and red blood cell production increase dramatically during pregnancy to supply the growing fetus with oxygen and nutrients, and so the demand for iron increases. While the body typically maximizes iron absorption during pregnancy, insufficient iron intake or other factors affecting the way iron is absorbed can lead to iron deficiency.

Low iron intake during pregnancy increases the risk of premature birth and low birth weight, as well as low iron stores and impaired cognitive or behavioural development in infants. Pregnant women with low iron may be more prone to infection because iron also supports the immune system.

What Happens if Your Body Has a Lack of Iron?

A lack of dietary iron depletes iron stores in the liver, spleen and bone marrow. Severe depletion can lead to iron deficiency anemia. Certain life-stages require greater iron intake and if these are not met, the risk for iron deficiency is increased. For example, pregnancy demands additional iron to support the added blood volume, growth of the fetus and blood loss during childbirth. Infants and young children need extra iron to support their rapid growth and brain development. Because breast milk is low in iron, infants exclusively fed breastmilk may also be at risk for iron deficiency. Similarly, the rapid growth of adolescence also demands extra iron.

Why might my iron be low?

One reason you may be low on iron is that your body’s demand for iron may have increased. This often occurs in young children undergoing rapid growth, pregnant women, and people who lose blood through blood donation, intestinal conditions, menstruation, or very intense endurance activity such as long distance running.

Another reason for low iron is decreased iron intake or absorption. Health professionals recommend that men aged 19-50 consume 8 mg of iron per day and premenopausal women consume 18 mg of iron per day. After menopause, women’s iron needs drop to the same level as men’s: 8 mg per day.

What is Anemia?

If you have anemia, your blood does not carry enough oxygen to the rest of your body. The most common cause of anemia is not having enough iron.

What causes anemia?

Anemia can make you feel tired, cold, dizzy, and irritable. You may be short of breath or have a headache.

Anemia has three main causes: blood loss, lack of red blood cell production, and high rates of red blood cell destruction.

Conditions That May Lead to Anemia Include:

Heavy periods



Colon polyps or colon cancer

Inherited disorders

A diet that does not have enough iron, folic acid or vitamin B12

Blood disorders such as sickle cell anemia and thalassemia, or cancer

Aplastic anemia, a condition that can be inherited or acquired

A metabolic disorder, such as G6PD deficiency

Common Symptoms of Anemia:


cold hands and feet




irregular heartbeat

chest pain

pale or yellowish skin

shortness of breath


whooshing sound or pounding in your ears

Diagnosis and Treatment:

Your doctor will diagnose anemia with a physical exam and blood tests. Treatment depends on the kind of anemia you have.

One simple way to improve your body’s iron levels is to change the way you eat.

Dietary iron takes two forms: heme (meat, poultry, and fish) and nonheme (beans, spinach, and fortified foods). Although nonheme iron is the more abundant form, the body more readily absorbs heme iron. Therefore you can increase iron absorption by consuming more heme iron.
In addition, vitamin C helps to increase the amount of iron that your body absorbs; consuming foods or beverages rich in vitamin C at the same time that you are eating foods high in iron will boost iron absorption. Other compounds inhibit the absorption of iron, so you should avoid consuming foods or beverages containing these substances at the same time you are eating iron-rich foods.

For example, for improved iron absorption, don’t drink coffee or tea during a meal or for one hour following a meal.

Similarly, legumes and whole grains contain compounds that reduce iron absorption - so avoid consuming beans or whole grains with an iron-rich meal.

*A diet rich in iron-producing foods as mentioned above, as well as iron-boosting supplements, are both usually sufficient methods to treat iron deficiency and anemia If your symptoms are very serious and persist for an extended period of time, it may be time to consult your healthcare professional.

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