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Here’s what you need to know about iron deficiency

Low iron affects one in three people worldwide, making it the most common nutritional deficiency. So why are we still so hazy on its definition? If your understanding of iron deficiency could use a brush-up, here’s everything you need to know. 

If you stood up at your desk right now and announced, ‘I’m low in iron’, half the office is bound to chime in with a ‘Me too!’. If your workplace is predominantly women, you might even hear a couple of humble brags about how much of a hassle it is getting regular iron transfusions. 

But while conversations about iron deficiency have become as common as discussing our favourite Black Friday bargains, a recent survey commissioned by CSL has revealed most Aussies don’t actually have a clear-cut understanding of the condition. As the records show, women tend to be at a higher risk of iron deficiency, but not every indicative symptom is common knowledge.  

Women often chalk their symptoms up to ‘one too many periods’ over their lifetime, and aside from popping a few over-the-counter iron supplements, many people living with some degree of iron deficiency don’t always seek long-term treatment. Luckily Sydney-based General Practitioner Dr Michela Sorensen is here to set the record straight, sharing the causes, symptoms and treatment options every Aussie should be aware of. 

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What exactly is an iron deficiency?

Yes, four years of high school chemistry might have conditioned you to think of the element as tough grey metal with a symbol that tripped you up in most exams, but iron actually plays a pretty crucial role in the human body, carrying oxygen around in the blood. 

Without sufficient levels of it, your immune system would start to crack, as well as your concentration and energy levels.  

And while most people, deficient or not, are aware of the most common symptom– tiredness– associated with the condition, the survey revealed only one per cent of participants knew the complete list of identifiable symptoms. 

“Some of the lesser known, and perhaps more obscure, symptoms include pale skin, chest tightness or shortness of breath, dizziness, tongue redness and pain, brittle nails and cravings for unusual food such as ice,” explains Dr Sorensen. “In little kids, iron deficiency can often present as poor appetite or fussiness.”

The GP also notes that women are simply placed at a higher risk of developing iron deficiency due to menstruation, “Iron is an important building block of our red blood cells and is carried in these red blood cells,” she explains. “When women have a period they lose blood, which equates to losing iron.”

Given the physiologically-taxing experience of pregnancy, birth and postpartum recovery, many women’s bodies require greater levels of iron throughout these periods too. 

Is iron deficiency over-diagnosed? 

With tiredness being the number one indicator of the condition, it can be difficult to determine whether people are truly experiencing a deficiency, or simply stay up too late watching Gossip Girl re-runs. But are we over-diagnosing ourselves due to our limited understanding, or is iron deficiency really as rampant as it seems?

“Symptoms of iron deficiency can be very non-specific, and a lot of people do attribute their tiredness to it, when it may not actually be the culprit,” Dr Sorensen says. “Some conditions that mimic iron deficiency include hypothyroidism, vitamin B12 deficiency or even depression or burnout. Perimenopause can also cause similar symptoms.”

The experienced GP also adds that people experiencing exhaustion often just want to be told they can ‘fix’ whatever is causing it, which is a box having low iron ticks. 

“However, iron deficiency is very simple to diagnose,” she explains. “A simple blood test to check iron stores can tell you if you’re deficient or not.”

So you’ve got low iron, what now?

If a blood test does alert you to your depleted iron levels, don’t be alarmed. There are plenty of treatment options available depending on how serious your lack of supply is, from simple tablet supplements to iron transfusions. 

Left untreated, iron deficiency can take a serious toll on your everyday life, according to Dr Sorensen, “It can cause fatigue and brain fog which can impact on work productivity, not to mention severe iron deficiency can make day to day activities really exhausting.” 

As the GP explains, the easiest way to manage your body’s natural iron levels is by increasing your intake of foods like red meat, legumes, almonds and green leafy vegetables. 

“Calcium actually reduces your absorption of iron, while vitamin C increases it, so maybe have an orange juice with that steak instead of a glass of milk!” Dr Sorensen says.

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