What is iron-deficiency anemia?
Red blood cells (erythrocytes) are the carriers of gas in the blood. Oxygen and carbon dioxide to a lesser extent are transported by attaching to these cells. The red blood cell’s main oxygen carrying structure is hemoglobin which is made up of iron among other components. Anemia is a condition where the number of red blood cells or hemoglobin is lower than normal. In iron-deficiency anemia, this is due to a deficiency of hemoglobin associated with low iron availability. The low oxygen supply also leads to less red blood cells being produced. Ultimately this decreases the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood and leads to a host of associated signs and symptoms.
Causes of Iron-Deficiency Anemia
Iron-deficiency anemia is one of the most common types of anemia.There are several different causes and more than one risk factor may be present at the same time thereby contributing to this type of anemia.
It is particularly common in young girls and women due to monthly blood loss associated with menstruation. This does not mean that every menstruating girl or women will have iron-deficiency anemia. It is more likely to occur in females with heavy and too frequent periods but it is not uncommon for some degree of iron-deficiency anemia to be present in most menstruating females. This may be due to an interplay of monthly blood loss with other factors discussed below.
If the iron loss is due to a slow recurring or constant bleed (chronic), the red blood cells that are produced may be smaller than normal. If there has been a sudden loss of blood and iron, the iron-deficiency anemia that may follow, if it does, will be fewer red blood cells of normal size. Apart from menses, the blood loss may also be due to gastrointestinal bleeding as may be seen with a bleeding peptic ulcer, inflammatory bowel disease, polyps in the bowel or colorectal cancer. Although there is no bleeding in pregnancy, iron-deficiency anemia may be a result of increased blood volume and the needs of the growing fetus which is dependent upon the mother’s stores.
A lack of iron may be associated with low iron intake. This dietary deficiency can occur for various reasons from eating disorders, to picky eating and malnutrition associated with poverty and neglect in children. These days many foods are fortified with iron to ensue a sufficient daily intake to prevent deficiency disorders such as iron-deficiency anemia. In children, dietary deficiency is one of the more common causes of iron-deficiency anemia. However, it is also a significant contributing factor in menstruating females, particularly those who are extremely weight conscious, partake in strict dieting or may have eating disorders. In conjunction with the monthly loss, even moderately poor eating habits can contribute to iron-deficiency anemia.
Some gastrointestinal diseases like celiac disease, can affect the intestine’s ability to absorb iron. If iron cannot be absorbed adequately, large consumption of iron-rich foods and even iron supplements will not be useful in combatting iron-deficiency anemia. There are theories, although not conclusively proven, that the fluctuations in the female hormones during the menstrual cycle may contribute to decreased iron absorption from the intestines rendering iron-rich foods and supplements ineffective in adequately treating iron-deficiency anemia in menstruating females.