Iron – use with caution
Although iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia world-wide, assuming it exists and taking iron supplements can be harmful. Other diseases can cause the fatigue, weakness, pallor, headache, and dizziness often seen with iron deficiency anemia. There are also other causes of anemia besides a lack of iron, such as deficiency of the B vitamins folate or B12. If these deficiencies are missed, it could cause other problems such as permanent nerve damage from a shortage of vitamin B12.
Some types of anemia are inherited and often iron and vitamin supplements won’t help. With Thalassemia anemia, iron supplements can make the individual sicker. Another inherited disease, hemochromatosis, causes excess iron absorption. Those with this disorder, even normal iron consumption can lead to iron deposition in the liver, joints and heart. Excess iron storage in the liver can cause cirrhosis, and eventually liver failure. Heart failure can develop with abnormally high levels of iron in that organ.
Normal red blood cells (RBCs) last about 120 days and are then broken down. The iron from such degraded RBCs is recycled, decreasing the need for dietary iron. In healthy males there’s usually no need for iron supplements. Women of child-bearing age can easily become iron deficient because of menstrual blood loss as well as from pregnancy and childbirth.
Other common causes of blood loss are ulcers or prolonged or heavy periods. Those disorders need to be evaluated not just to avoid further blood loss but to determine if there is a more serious problem causing the abnormal bleeding.
Iron tablets can quickly correct a deficiency but some can cause constipation or stomach upset. Too high a dose can make an individual very sick. Iron overdose is a common cause of poisoning in small children.
Foods high in iron are less likely to cause a problem. Spinach, raisins, beans, and eggs are good sources of iron. Consuming these foods with high vitamin C foods like oranges helps increase iron absorption. Coffee, alcohol and tea decrease iron absorption. A lack of improvement warrants a medical evaluation. This article should not replace medical evaluation by a health care provider.