What is iron deficiency?

Iron deficiency affects up to 5 million Americans each year, making it the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide. An iron deficiency is seen most commonly in children, women who are menstruating or pregnant, and those eating a diet lacking in iron. It can also occur in people who do not eat meat, poultry, or seafood, lose blood, have GI diseases that interfere with nutrient absorption or eat poor diets.

Iron deficiency occurs in stages. The mild form begins with a decrease in stored iron, usually from a low-iron diet or excessive bleeding. If this does not resolve, the next stage is a greater depletion of iron stores and a drop in red blood cells. Eventually this leads to iron-deficiency anemia (IDA) where iron stores are used up and there is significant loss of total red blood cells. People with IDA are less able to fight off germs and infections, to work and exercise, and to control their body temperature. Infants and children with iron deficiency anemia might develop learning difficulties.

Common iron deficiency symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Confusion
  • Loss of concentration
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Pale skin
  • Hair loss
  • Brittle nails
  • Anemia

What causes an iron deficiency?

  • A diet lacking in iron-rich foods
  • Pregnancy
  • Excessive bleeding
  • Menstruation
  • GI resistance causing malabsorption
  • Menopause
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Some types of cancer

Further reading: Harvard School of Public Health, National Institutes of Health