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6 Iron Deficiency Diseases And Health Problems To Watch Out For

Health Problems Due To Iron Deficiency

Iron deficiency diseases like anemia have symptoms like fatigue that are easily confused for regular tiredness, but ignore them and you could wind up experiencing heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and worse. Even hair loss, pica, mouth ulcers, tinnitus, or restless legs syndrome could be connected to an iron deficiency.

Are you worried that you may have an iron deficiency? An iron deficiency, while not common in the general population in countries like the United States, may still be a very real possibility for certain segments like pregnant women or children who are deemed high risk. Since iron plays a major role in maintaining normal body function, forming hemoglobin, enabling normal blood flow and oxygen transportation around the body, and producing many enzymes and proteins in the body, ignore the problem and you may see severe symptoms.1 And while many of us know of certain iron deficiency diseases like anemia, others conditions like pica or even hair loss still fly under the radar.

Your body does not make iron but essentially absorbs it from the food you eat. Here’s a look at how much iron you actually need every day:2

 

  • Adult women under 50: 18 mg
  • Adult men under 50: 8 mg
  • Pregnant women: 27 mg
  • Lactating mothers: 9 mg
  • Adult men and women over 50: 8 mg

Only 10–30% of the iron you have is used by your body. Iron levels are usually regulated in your gastrointestinal tract, with the system absorbing iron here to maintain iron stores and ensure adequate iron in your body.3 While the total body iron in men averages 3.8 gm, the amount in women is about 2.3 gm with individual variations. You lose approximately 1 mg of the mineral through feces and via your skin and mucosal cells. In addition, women lose some iron via menstrual blood and during childbirth and postpartum.

Sometimes, a health condition can make your body less able to absorb and store iron or cause you to lose more iron. A life stage like puberty or pregnancy may also mean you need more iron than normal. For some people, the dietary intake may simply be inadequate. All of these can result in an iron deficiency.4 And when it’s not tackled in time, an iron deficiency can lead the way to more serious health problems.

1. Iron Deficiency Anemia

Remember, a mild iron deficiency and a mild form of iron deficiency anemia may never cause any symptoms at all. Symptoms start to pop up as the deficiency worsens.

Iron deficiency can progress into a condition known as iron deficiency anemia if not tackled in time. So how do you know when your body is anemic? Some telltale signs of iron deficiency anemia can help you zero in on the problem. If you experience any of these symptoms, it may call for closer scrutiny and a visit to the doctor’s:5

  • Tiredness
  • Lack of energy/lethargy
  • Headaches
  • Issues with concentration6

If your anemia progresses further, you may also notice these problems:7

  • Skin becomes pale
  • Nails become brittle or appear spoon-shaped8
  • Shortness of breath
  • Soreness of the tongue
  • Heart palpitations/noticeable heartbeats
  • Itchiness
  • Change in how food tastes to you

Iron deficiency as well as anemia can bring on other problems. Here’s a look at some diseases that you may encounter as someone with iron deficiency.

2. Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is often linked to diabetes, chronic kidney disease, a thyroid problem, and rheumatoid arthritis. But did you know an iron deficiency is also one of the possible causes? Low iron levels may lower levels of neurotransmitter dopamine, causing you to develop RLS.9 Watch for these signs:10

  • An irresistible urge to move (legs as well as other body parts)
  • Discomfort in lower limbs
  • Aching/pulling/itching/throbbing/creeping/crawling sensations in your legs
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Nighttime waking

Due to RLS, you may notice that you constantly pace when you are standing, move your legs when seated, and toss and turn when you are lying down.

3. Tinnitus And Hearing Loss

One study found that nearly 61% of subjects with sudden hearing loss had iron deficiency or iron deficiency anemia, suggesting a link between the two problems.11 In addition, anemia is one of the many causes of tinnitus or a ringing in the ears.12 You may hear these kinds of sounds if you have tinnitus:13

  • Ringing
  • Hissing
  • Buzzing
  • Static
  • Whooshing
  • Roaring
  • Pulsing that may be in sync with your heartbeats
  • Ocean waves
  • Crickets
  • Screeching
  • Something like a phone’s dial tone or even music

4. Hair Loss

Greater hair fall when you brush your hair or have a shower may also be a sign of an iron deficiency issue. Iron deficiency may also cause a patterned hair loss that’s similar to male or female pattern baldness. While a connection between iron deficiency and hair fall has been unearthed, researchers aren’t yet sure how iron is involved. The association was especially notable in the case of premenopausal female pattern hair loss.14

Female pattern hair loss may involve:15

  • Less volume of hair near the midline where you part your hair
  • Widening of the midline part
  • Diffuse thinning
  • The hair on the top of your head takes on a see-through appearance

5. Pica

Pica is an urge to eat nonfood items like ice, dirt, clay, hair, or paper. Pregnant women and pre-teens are more at risk than others. One type of this eating disorder is linked to an iron deficiency. A typical sign of pica is an urge to eat or eating of nonfood substances like soap, hair, cloth, wool, chalk, talcum powder, metal, ash, pebbles, charcoal, clay, ice, starch, gum, soil, string, or paper.16

What’s more, even if your pica is not caused by an iron deficiency, your iron absorption will reduce because of high amounts of nonnutritive substances in your body. Iron therapy may, therefore, help in these cases as well.17

Remember, the behavior to put everything in the mouth is normal in children who are two years or under and should not be considered pica. This is just a normal development stage little children go through.

6. Ulcers

One of the causes of mouth ulcers or oral ulcers is inadequate iron levels in the body. Women, in general, tend to be more prone to iron deficiency as you’ll see in the next section. In one study, researchers investigated levels of serum ferritin, an indicator of iron deficiency anemia, in female oral ulcer patients. They found that these levels were low in as many as 66% of the women tested.18 So if you have painful open sores in your mouth, it might just be due to an iron deficiency.

Women, Children, And Vegetarians Are At Risk Of Iron Deficiency

While those who consume a diet rich in iron are unlikely to have any such problems, some people are more prone to iron deficiency diseases. The risk increases when their diet is low in iron.19

  • Women with heavy menstrual periods
  • Breastfeeding mothers
  • Women who have recently had a baby
  • Vegans and vegetarians: even iron-rich vegan/vegetarian diets may not be optimal since the iron from vegetarian sources (nonheme iron) is less easily absorbed by the body
  • Anyone with a diet low in iron-rich foods
  • Children and infants may be generally at risk because iron deficiency may occur during periods of rapid growth20
  • Children consuming over 16–24 ounces of milk a day, since calcium can hamper absorption of iron
  • Anyone who has had a gastric bypass procedure or other bariatric procedures
  • Anyone who is a frequent blood donor

People With Certain Diseases Are More Susceptible To Iron Deficiency

In addition to the high-risk categories you’ve just read about, some other medical or health problems might put you at higher risk of iron deficiency.

Gastrointestinal diseases: Those with gastrointestinal diseases like these may be susceptible to low iron levels:21

  • Crohn’s disease
  • Celiac disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Peptic ulcer disease
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases

Blood loss from other diseases or complications: Excessive or chronic blood loss may also cause you to develop an iron deficiency disease. Which is why you should get your iron levels checked if you have blood loss related to any of these issues:22

  • Chronic nosebleeds
  • Gastritis
  • Esophagitis
  • Bowel or stomach ulcers
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Diverticulitis
  • Angiodysplasia
  • Bladder problems causing blood loss
  • Kidney problems causing blood loss
  • Tumors in the stomach, small bowel, colon, or esophagus

Intravascular hemolysis: People with intravascular hemolysis may also be at risk. The problem arises from trauma to small blood vessels, causing red blood cells to break down and release iron, which is then expelled from the body as urine. Vigorous exercise like jogging can bring this on. It may also be present if you have damaged heart valves. While rare, blood disorders like diffuse intravascular hemolysis and thrombotic thrombocytopenia purpura may also cause this iron loss.23

References   [ + ]

1. Iron. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
2. Iron.Office of Dietary Supplements.
3. Hemoglobin and Functions of Iron. University of California.
4. Recommendations to Prevent and Control Iron Deficiency in the United States. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
5, 8. Iron Deficiency Anemia. National Health Service.
6, 7. Iron deficiency anemia. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
9. Restless legs syndrome Causes. National Health Service.
10. Restless Legs Syndrome Fact Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
11. Sun, A., Z. Wang, and J. Li. “Disturbance of iron metabolism and sudden hearing loss: a prospective and retrospective survey.” Lin chuang er bi yan hou ke za zhi= Journal of clinical otorhinolaryngology 11, no. 6 (1997): 243-245.
12. Causes. American Tinnitus Association.
13. Symptoms. American Tinnitus Association.
14. Park, Song Youn, Se Young Na, Jun Hwan Kim, Soyun Cho, and Jong Hee Lee. “Iron plays a certain role in patterned hair loss.” Journal of Korean medical science 28, no. 6 (2013): 934-938.
15. Treating female pattern hair loss. Harvard Health Publishing.
16. Pica. National Eating Disorders Association.
17. Borgna-Pignatti, Caterina, and Sara Zanella. “Pica as a manifestation of iron deficiency.” Expert review of hematology 9, no. 11 (2016): 1075-1080.
18. Sumathi, K., B. Shanthi, M. Subha Palaneeswari, and A. J. Manjula Devi. “Significance of ferritin in recurrent oral ulceration.” Journal of clinical and diagnostic research: JCDR 8, no. 3 (2014): 14.
19, 21, 22, 23. Iron-Deficiency Anemia. American Society of Hematology.
20. Iron Deficiency Anemia. Iron Disorders Institute.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.