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The Effects of Iron Deficiency on the Body

By Clay McNight ; Updated August 14, 2017

Iron deficiency results in a low number of red blood cells in the body, and iron-deficiency anemia develops when the body isn't getting enough iron to create new red blood cells. Once the body's stored iron is used up, fewer red blood cells are created, which can lead to a number of symptoms, including fatigue, pale skin, general weakness, brittle nails, hair loss and headaches.

Iron's Role

Iron is a mineral that's necessary for many bodily functions, including manufacturing hemoglobin, which is the molecule in your blood that transports oxygen. Iron is also required to support healthy skin, hair, nail and cells in your body. The body obtains iron through food, which is then absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract and released into the bloodstream or stored in the liver, for the future creation of red blood cells. Although the body only requires a small portion of the iron ingested, iron deficiency is still very common, particularly among certain groups.

High-Risk Groups

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pregnant women and young children are at the highest risk of iron deficiency, because their requirement for iron is the highest, due to rapid growth. Premenopausal women are also at risk, due to the blood loss that occurs with menstruation. The American Society of Hematology notes that other high-risk groups include those with peptic ulcers, people who have undergone major surgery or trauma, vegetarians and vegans, people who have undergone gastric bypass and other bariatric surgeries and children who drink more than two to three glasses of cow's milk per day, because it can decrease the absorption of iron.

Symptoms of Iron Deficiency

Iron deficiency can present itself through many different symptoms. These symptoms are a result of a lack of oxygen being delivered throughout the body. Common symptoms include paleness, rapid heartbeat, general weakness, fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain, lack of energy, headaches, pounding in the ears, sore tongue, cravings for ice or clay, brittle nails and hair loss, according to the American Society of Hematology. Other symptoms can include an enlarged spleen, frequent infections, restless leg syndrome and very heavy menstrual bleeding, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. The CDC notes that weakened immune function, decreased mental and social development during childhood and decreased school and work performance can also be symptoms of iron deficiency anemia.

Detection and Treatment

If you're experiencing symptoms associated with iron deficiency, your health care provider can run a few tests to detect iron levels in the blood. If your health care provider believes that you are deficient in iron, your provider may prescribe an iron supplement. If the deficiency is determined to exist because you're not getting enough iron in your diet, you may simply be prescribed a more iron-rich diet. Foods rich in iron include clams, oysters, fortified cereals, organ meats such as liver, soybeans, pumpkin and squash seeds, white beans, blackstrap molasses, lentils, spinach, beef, lamb, duck and shrimp.

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