Iron deficiency causes microcytic and hypochromic anaemia. Symptoms include fatigue, weakness, pallor, dyspnoea and palpilation.
Iron deficiency also causes decreases in work and intellectual performances, neurological functions and immune defences.
Low level of iron in infants and children causes retardation of physical, mental and motor development. Behavioural problems also exist such as unhappy, tiredness and tensions. Lack of iron can cause disturbed epithelial tissue formation. Fingernails will become thin, flat and spoon-shaped.
Iron deficiency is one of the main causes of anaemia as the mineral is essential in normal red blood cells production. Symptoms include headaches, palpilation, fatigue, sore tongue and cold are seen.
Other effects of iron deficiency include skin problem such as itching around the arms, legs, genitals and pica.
Who is at risk?
Studies suggest that ten per cent of all women suffer from iron deficiency and one out of three women has low iron stores. The iron intake for adolescent girls cannot match their needs due to menstrual losses and the increased demands of adolescent growth.
An average woman loses about 15-20 mg of iron each menstrual period. The choice of contraception methods may also affect the extent of blood loss in some women. Even bleeding haemorrhoids increase the risk of an iron deficiency.
The elderly are also prone to iron deficiencies because they produce less hydrochloric acid in their later years, which is necessary for successful iron absorption.
The importance of iron
Iron is needed to form haemoglobin (found in red blood cells) and myoglobin (found in muscle cells). Both of them are oxygen carrier.
Haemoglobin is made in bone marrow and liver. When red blood cells died, the haemoglobin is divided into oxidised haem and bilirubin. These two components are then reused to form new red blood cells and will be excreted through the faeces.
Iron is also a part of erythropoietin hormone that is important in red blood cells production regulation. Iron is stored in the liver and bone marrow in the form of ferritin and haemosiderin.
Iron is a part of various kinds of enzymes that help protein metabolism. It is important in collagen synthesis. Collagen is needed in tissue formation and it strengthens the cells. It is also needed in the formation of bones, joints and cartilage.
Iron is a co-factor in nucleic acid synthesis and conversion of beta-carotene to vitamin A. It is also needed by neutrophiles and lymphocytes to produce antibodies that are improtant in immune system and body defence system against microorganisms’ infections.
Iron is a part of several intracellular enzymes such as cytochrome that is needed for cells respiration, catalase that inhibits oxidising agent such as hydrogen peroxide and myeloperoxidase that is essential in white blood cells production. Other function of iron is it is also essential in normal ATP synthesis.
What is the daily requirement of iron?
The daily requirement for an adult is 15 mg.
Source of iron
Iron is found in two forms in our diet which is haem iron and nonhaem iron. Haem iron is found in animal while nonhaem iron is found in plant.
Haem iron is usually found in clams, oysters, liver, salmon, tuna, beef, pork and lamb.
Nonhaem iron is found in eggs, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, legumes, brocolli, carrots, peaches, potatoes, grapes, brewer’s yeast and whole grain and herbs such as alfalfa, dong guai, dandelion and milk thistle.
Iron is lost in food preparation principally when the cooking water is discarded.
Another loss occurs when food is peeled and discarded since iron is concentrated near the surface of these foods. Therefore, peeling potatoes skin can cause iron loss.
Losses can be minimised by cooking the food at low temperatures, in less water (steaming is preferred) and in large pieces.
The usage of water in gravies or soup stock salvages much of the iron loss.
Interactions of iron with other foods, drugs and minerals
Iron reduces the effects of antacids and ulcer-healing drugs, antibiotics (such as doxycycline, ketoconazole, tetracycline) and anti-cholesterol drugs (atorvastatin, celestipol, cholesytramine, simvastatin, probucol).
Allupurinol (gout treatment drug), dexatrim, amaphen, clofibrate, para-aminosalicyclic acid, vitamin E, cooper and zinc reduce iron absorption. Indocin (anti-inflammatory drug) causes iron loss as a result of bleeding.
Vitamins A and C increase iron absorption. However, iron decreases manganese absorption.
Milk, cheese, eggs, yoghurt, tea, coffee and spinach decrease iron absorption. Alcohol increases iron utilisation.
Diseases associated to iron overdose include haemosiderosis, thalasemia, polycythemia and haemochromatosis.
Haemochromatosis is a condition where uncontrollabe iron absorption happened. It is a herditary disease. Symptoms include weight loss, changes in skin colour and decreased sex drive.
Iron toxicity causes blood vomitting, bloody diarrhoea, nausea and constipation. High level of iron also causes infections because iron is also needed for microorganisms’ growth and development too. Iron overdose also causes cancer and heart disease.
Iron supplement is used to prevent hypothermia (drop of body temperature below normal level, 370 C).
It is also given to vegetarians as their diets are lack of iron.
Iron supplement is also used to treat menorrhagia and itching.
Iron is included in baby formulae too to prevent anaemia in infants.