Mar 2, 2018

A guide to iron deficiency – the number one cause of anaemia

Have you ever wondered why you can’t run for even a minute on the treadmill before you need a break? It could be anaemia.

Amongst many factors that can cause your stamina to drop, iron deficiency anaemia ranks as one of the most common causes. Low iron levels in the body can affect all age groups and genders. However, women of child bearing age and in pregnancy are particularly prone. Heavy menstrual flow can cause significant loss of blood and hence, iron, in the body. This can be managed with a proper iron-rich diet or supplements. But you need to know your biomarkers level to be informed (haemoglobin, serum iron).

In Malaysia, 35% of pregnant women on average tend to suffer from anaemia (when anaemia is defined as haemoglobin level of 11.0) and by far the commonest type is iron deficiency anaemia (IDA). This level of 11.0 g/dL is the cutoff definition for anaemia according to the WHO guidelines and also the Ministry of Health Malaysia.

What Iron Does For Our Body

Iron is an important bioelement that performs various vital functions in our bodies. The most talked about function of this mineral is the production of haemoglobin pigment in our red blood cells. You see, iron is needed to produce haemoglobin which carries oxygen and carbon dioxide in our blood to oxygenate our cells and detoxify them of CO2.

Apart from acting as haemoglobin constituent, iron is also a critical ingredient in the formation of various enzymes, regulation of our immune system, and also instrumental in the conversion of glucose to energy in our cells.

People that have low levels of iron in the body have a tendency to develop a state of iron-deficiency anemia. This anemia can cause fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, pallor and tongue inflammation.

Too much iron in the blood can lead to adverse effects as well. Iron toxicity manifests itself in the form of bronzed skin discoloration, joint pain and lethargy. This chronic condition is usually genetic and is referred to hemochromatosis.

Managing Iron Deficiency

When the anaemia is discovered through a blood test and is not accompanied by any symptoms (hyperlink the word symptoms to our biomarker iron article) it can be considered mild anaemia. You should seek medical help when there are any symptoms that accompany your anaemia, since your anaemia can be severe, or that there is a medical condition causing your anaemia and your symptoms.

You can reduce your risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia by choosing iron rich foods. Iron-rich sources like dark green, leafy vegetables, red meat and beans are great options to consider if you suffer from low serum iron or haemoglobin levels. It is often recommended to take Vitamin C rich food concurrently as well as this vitamin helps to absorb iron better.

If changing your diet does not help, you might need to consider adding daily iron supplements to your diet. These supplements come in tablet forms and can sometimes cause constipation. Iron supplements are recommended for pregnant women in their second trimester to meet their daily iron requirement. For recommended daily allowance of iron please click here. (Victoria link this word here to our iron biomarker article).

Severe or prolonged anaemia may lead to heart failure, increased mortality during pregnancy, childbirth and affect development to the  newborn. It might also lead your doctor to suggest a blood transfusion.

Tests to Rule out Iron Deficiency

The amount of iron in the blood can be detected by different biomarkers. Serum iron tests (iron in our blood), transferrin saturation and total iron binding capacity (your body’s ability to transport iron in the blood), ferritin (your body’s total iron storage capacity), haemoglobin levels and the hematocrit can all indicate the level of iron in the blood. Often the first test performed is the complete blood count which indicates iron deficiency if haemoglobin levels are lower than the normal range.


Getting your blood iron levels checked is important. Iron plays a pivotal role in cellular metabolism and electron transfer. Most importantly, it makes sure our red blood cells work to their optimum potential. If you notice symptoms of anaemia (paleness of the skin and fatigue), it’s a good idea to get checked from your doctor as iron-deficiency anaemia left untreated can worsen overtime and have negative consequences on your health.

If you’re interested in learning more about iron serum and how it affects your body, read on more about it in our biomarker post here!

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