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What is iron deficiency?

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More than two billion people in the world suffer from some degree of iron deficiency, which occurs when there is not enough of the chemical element in the body for it to function optimally. 

Nutritional therapist Sarah Barber explains: “Iron’s most important function is to build haemoglobin – the substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body so it can nourish our cells. If we have low iron levels then this function is impaired.”

Iron deficiency ultimately leads to anaemia, a condition that arises when stores of iron are so depleted that the body is unable to maintain adequate amounts of haemoglobin in the blood.

Sarah Barber is a Brighton and Hove based nutritional therapist. Her Pure People clinic provides dietary programs for weight loss, detox, expectant mothers and babies and children. More from this expert.

  • Causes of iron deficiency

    The most obvious cause of iron deficiency is not including enough iron-rich foods in our diet. It is, however, possible to develop anaemia despite ingesting iron in adequate quantities. Sarah explains: “Iron deficiency can occur as a result of poor absorption in the stomach – perhaps as a result of surgery. It can also arise through severe blood loss caused by things like heavy menstruation, peptic ulcers or haemorrhoids.”

  • Symptoms of iron deficiency

    Iron deficiency sufferers will notice symptoms such as pale skin, tiredness, weakness, breathlessness and increased susceptibility to infections. “Over time these symptoms can worsen and degenerative problems start to appear. Eventually, if oxygen levels are seriously reduced and the condition has gone untreated for a long period, individuals can suffer angina and heart failure,” explains Sarah.

    Oysters, clams and mussels are some of the best food sources to increase iron consumption in your diet. Liver, beef, lamb, spinach, beans and pulses are also high in iron and could help give your levels a boost.

  • Sources of iron

    Oysters, clams and mussels are some of the best food sources to increase iron consumption in your diet. Liver, beef, lamb, spinach, beans and pulses are also high in iron and could help give your levels a boost.

  • Recommended levels of iron

    The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of iron is 9-10mg for men and 15-18mg for women. For children, the RDA varies according to their age.

  • People at risk of iron deficiency

    A 2004 study published in The National Diet and Nutrition Survey estimated that 8% of UK women and 3% of men have iron deficiency anaemia. Children and pregnant women are most at risk of iron deficiency. For pregnant women, the growth of both their own and their babies’ bodies means they require greater levels of nutrients. Women of childbearing age are also on the at risk list as a result of monthly blood loss during menstruation.

    After conducting a review of relevant trials, the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development of the World Health Organisation concluded that daily supplementation of iron before birth helped reduce the risk of low birth weight and prevent maternal anaemia and iron deficiency in pregnancy.

    Similarly, a 2011 study published in the Nutrition journal found anaemic pregnant women were less likely to have a preterm birth if given iron supplementation.

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