Iron Deficiency Anemia is far more complex and interesting than anyone is telling you. It’s such an interesting and complex topic that I felt compelled to write an entire site to educate the public about this insidious condition that can sneak up on you and cause long-term subtle health problems that might go undiagnosed for years or even decades, like it did for me.
It’s crazy that this condition can cause these problems simply for lack of the right education and a few simple blood tests that most doctors just do not do, and that you can even order yourself online. This is a health travesty that can be easily avoided, and it’s far more common than anyone might believe.
A Nutritional Deficiency,
But Much More as Well
Iron deficiency is just a nutritional deficiency. It’s not some hard to diagnose condition like Fibromyalgia or some hidden cancers. Its diagnosis is as easy as taking a blood test and looking at the results. There is very little ambiguity in diagnosis.
“Iron deficiency is the most common and widespread
nutritional disorder in the world…The numbers are staggering:
2 billion people – over 30% of the world’s population – are anaemic”
The World Health Organization
There is really no reason for anyone with access to western medical care to be left with undiagnosed or untreated anemia, since the treatment is extremely inexpensive iron pills that can be found in every drug store in the western world. Unfortunately, people from infants to the elderly go undiagnosed for years, decades, or even a lifetime, suffering the many consequences, simply for lack of the right blood test. There really is no excuse for so-called ‘advanced’ medicine in western countries to be overlooking a simple nutritional deficiency that affects millions of people.
What is Iron
While this might be super elementary, it’s surprising how many people do not actually know what iron is. Iron is the most common mineral present in the earth’s crust. It can often be easily determined where high concentration of iron is present because the soil will have a characteristic red color, like in the Red Rocks area of Colorado or in Sedona, Arizona. It is present in most animals and some vegetables, and its presence in a substance called Hemoglobin is what gives the characteristic red color to the blood of many animals.
It’s also the stuff that cast iron pans and wrought iron decorations are made up. In fact, you can get a significant amount of iron cooking in cast iron pots if you have iron deficiency anemia, just be careful that everyone else in the house is not getting too much iron while you replenish your iron stores through cooking.
Iron and Oxidation
If you have a cast iron pan, you know that if you clean it of all the oils and leave it out for a couple of days, it will develop an orangish-red tinge that we call ‘rust’ or ‘oxidation’, which is why our blood is red. In other words, the red color we see in our blood is a form of ‘rust’! We literally rust whenever the iron in our blood comes into contact with oxygen, which is at all times that we are alive!
We are constantly ‘rusting’ or ‘oxidizing’ because our hemoglobin carries oxygen in our blood, comes into contact with the oxygen and becomes red or ‘oxidized’ as a result. It’s called ‘life’ to be constantly rusting, which is why we eat food with antioxidants, like vegetables. Only don’t try to get Iron from Spinach, as the antioxidants can actually interfere with iron absorption.
Ironically, the cells that carry oxygen in our blood are the same cells that carry the iron, causing a constant ‘rusting’ of our bodies 24 hours a day 7 days a week. As a result of this, it’s important to have ‘enough’ iron to carry oxygen, but not so much that you cause excess ‘rusting’.
Our bodies have developed extremely complex and ingenious feedback loops, such as the production of a substance called Hepcidin, and the relationship of iron and vitamin D (see the page on Why Doctors Keep African-Americans Anemic), in order to manage the absorption of iron. You can read more about this phenomenon of iron oxidation and its importance in our bodies on the page Anemia and Oxidative Stress (page to come soon).
Iron Deficiency Anemia is Only One Kind of Anemia
First of all, many may think that ‘iron deficiency anemia’ is redundant because iron deficiency and anemia are the same thing; but this is not at all true. One can have iron deficiency without anemia, and can even have anemia when you are dangerously overloaded in iron. In fact, there are many types of anemia, including:
- Microcytic Anemia
- Macrocytic Anemia
- B12 Deficiency Anemia
- Aplastic Anemia
- Pernicious Anemia
- Sickle Cell Anemia
- Hypochromic anemia
- Anemia of Inflammation
Some of these anemias may have a component of iron deficiency, but can also occur in the presence of normal or even too much iron stores. In fact, iron deficiency is a depletion of iron STORES in the body, while anemia refers to depletion of iron just in the red blood cells, also known as RBC’s.
But where are these other iron stores that are not in the red blood cells? When we think of iron, we think of our blood, but that is not the only storage bin of iron in our bodies. Iron can also be found in:
- Myoglobin cells that make up the muscles
- The Liver
- Other blood cells such as neutrophils
- Most other tissues contain small amounts of iron too
While the normal Definition of Anemia is to have a low amount of hemoglobin in the blood, you can have less iron in your blood cells while still having normal or even excess iron stores in the body; you can also have normal amounts of iron in the red blood cells, but low iron in the tissues, and you can even have low amounts of iron in your red blood cells while having excess iron in the liver. It all depends upon what is causing the problem.
“Iron deficiency is a depletion of iron stores while anemia
refers to the depletion of iron in the red blood cells.
Only 50% of anemia is caused by iron deficiency, the
remainder is caused by vitamin A, B12, folate
deficiencies, malaria, HIV, other infectious diseases, sickle
cell disease and other inherited anemia”
Effects of Different Types of Oral Iron Therapy on Anemia
Definition of iron deficiency anemia
Now that we know iron deficiency and anemia can be different things, what, exactly, IS iron deficiency anemia? Defining conditions like iron deficiency anemia is always a challenge because different scientists, different doctors, and different laboratories will disagree on the exact definitions of conditions like this, and the exact ‘range’ of abnormal tests, but generally the numbers will be fairly close, making iron deficiency anemia fairly easy to diagnose… if the right tests are done to find it. Please see our page on the Definition of Anemia to get more info, as we’ve already covered this information in depth on that page, we won’t repeat it here.
Iron Deficiency is Extremely Serious, even Without Anemia
Studies looking at the consequences of iron deficiency without anemia are many. We go over this more in depth in the Iron Poor Blood page. It’s important to read that page because it’s the situation that so many, particularly women and children, would find themselves in if they were to simply have the knowledge they need to get a ferritin and iron levels. And it is the people that must be educated, because doctors are simply not doing these tests at this point in time, and will not discover Iron Poor Blood unless anemia is present.
Fatigue is the Number One Reason Patients See a Doctor
Then let’s not forget that fatigue is the number one complaint that people see a doctor. And almost every one of these people will receive a battery of tests that includes the hemoglobin and hematocrit blood tests. Again, even small changes in iron can lead to fatigue, but iron levels will almost never be taken.
Aside from fatigue, there are many other Symptoms of Iron Deficiency that, unfortunately, can be attributed to many other problems and often get overlooked by uneducated doctors, sometimes for decades. That was my situation. Looking back, I almost certainly had iron deficiency for more than 20 years, probably since childhood.
Self Treatment with Iron is Extremely Dangerous
After reading this, don’t just go off and start treating yourself with iron because you might have some of the symptoms that we outline on the Symptoms of Iron Deficiency page. While we are HUGE believers in people taking control of their own health and using doctors as tools to help them achieve optimal health, we also want to warn against self-treatment with iron without the proper testing.
Ideally, you would be working with a health professional knowledgeable in the treatment of iron deficiency anemia. There are many pitfalls in diagnosing the different Causes of Anemia, and iron can be an extremely dangerous supplement if you take it incorrectly or when you do not need it.
I cannot stress enough that taking iron without actually needing it can be extremely dangerous. Iron is a toxic substance that causes free radical oxidative damage in the body. Taking iron causes oxidative stress, even if you need that iron. Let me say that again. Even if you need iron, it will cause oxidative stress and damage to cells in the body. For those with anemia, they need to take iron and suffer the excess oxidative stress. But those who do not need it should not take it.
Because iron is so toxic, the human body has developed elaborate defenses against getting too much, such as the feedback loop initiated by a substance produced in the liver called Hepcidin. This feedback loop is so strong that hepcidin is activated to limit absorption of iron EVEN IF you are seriously iron deficient. This makes getting enough iron challenging.
When the Feedback Loop Becomes Broken
Unfortunately, sometimes this feedback loop breaks down and people absorb too much iron or have genetic issues or inflammation that cause too much iron absorption. Without the proper testing, you might BELIEVE that you have iron deficiency anemia, when in fact you have serious gastrointestinal bleeding, or you might be already iron overloaded, or you might just have massive inflammation in the body that leads to Anemia of Chronic Disease.
For any of these conditions, taking iron might cover up the problem or even make it far worse than it was before you took iron. Treat iron as if it’s a drug and not a nutritional supplement. While MOST nutrients will not harm you if you take them in small doses, even if they are not needed, iron will.
If you ask most people what nutrient they could overdose on the easiest, they will probably tell you that Vitamin D Overdose is very easy to do and very serious. But the truth is that it is extremely hard to overdose on Vitamin D, but extremely easy to take too much iron. Incidentally, the link between Vitamin D and Iron is very interesting.
Iron is possibly the most dangerous supplement on the market, and children Overdose on Iron regularly, leading to serious health problems and even death. Iron deficiency anemia is a double edged sword. Iron is toxic, but necessary to good health. Finding the ‘Goldilocks’ amount that is not too little and not too much, but that is ‘just right’ can be a lifelong challenge for many. For those who do need to take iron, taking the Best Iron Supplements can be a serious game changer. With a combination of low to no side effects and absorption equal to intravenous iron, you’ll be glad you made the switch.