October 7, 2011
Dear Mayo Clinic:
A recent blood test showed that I have low iron stores. Does this mean I'm anemic? Should I be taking an iron supplement? I'm a 41-year-old woman, and I don't have any other health concerns.
Having low iron stores in your body doesn't necessarily mean you're anemic. But low iron can lead to anemia if the problem isn't addressed. A daily iron supplement may help. Also, you should take a look at your diet to make sure it includes healthy sources of iron.
Iron is a mineral that helps the bone marrow make hemoglobin, the part of a red blood cell that carries oxygen to body tissues. The body can store a certain amount of extra iron in a red blood cell protein called ferritin. When there's not enough iron in the diet, the body uses the iron stored in ferritin to get what it needs to make hemoglobin. When a person's iron stores are low, as in your case, that condition is known as iron deficiency. If the body uses up all the iron stored in ferritin, then it can't make hemoglobin. A low level of hemoglobin is anemia.
When your blood test showed low iron stores, that meant the amount of ferritin in your blood was low. Low ferritin puts you at risk for developing iron deficiency anemia. Your condition needs attention because if it progresses to anemia, and the anemia is left untreated, the result can be extreme fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath and dizziness. In some cases severe anemia can cause the heart to work harder than normal to get oxygen to the rest of the body. Over time, in extreme situations, this can lead to heart failure.
Iron deficiency anemia is common in women of childbearing age because their bodies use and lose a good deal of iron through pregnancy, breast-feeding and menstruation. To protect against anemia, the Institute of Medicine recommends that females ages 19 through 50 get 18 milligrams of iron per day. The recommended intake for men and women over 51 years is 8 milligrams per day.
The best way to get the iron your body needs is in your diet. Your body absorbs more iron from meat than it does from other sources, so red meat, pork and poultry are good choices if you're trying to increase iron. Other foods rich in iron include beans, dark green leafy vegetables (such as spinach), eggs and iron-fortified breads, pastas and cereals. Iron that comes from foods other than meat is not absorbed into your body as easily as iron from meat. Foods rich in vitamin C can help with iron absorption. So, if you're relying mainly on nonmeat sources of iron, also include oranges, grapefruit or other citrus fruits in your diet.
Iron deficiency can also be a sign of other serious health problems like silent gastrointestinal bleeding. People who get dialysis for kidney disease or those who have had gastric bypass surgery may also develop iron deficiency anemia. If you have been diagnosed with iron deficiency, a thorough medical evaluation is important. If no other cause of iron deficiency is found, you should increase healthy sources of iron in your diet, and you may need an iron supplement.
Before you begin taking an iron supplement, however, talk to your doctor. The right amount of iron — not too little or too much — is important because excess iron can also lead to health problems. Your doctor can assess your needs and help you decide what's right for you.
— Richa Sood, M.D., Women's Health Clinic, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.