Many nutrients are needed, in differing amounts, for the body to maintain its health and be able to carry out all of its functions correctly. The best way to obtain all of these nutrients is through eating a healthy, balanced diet that contains a wide range of different products. This ensures that you are not taking in only a small proportion of the nutrients that are required, which would happen if you ate the same foods all of the time.
Iron is one of the important elements that is needed for a range of processes to take place, but one of the best known of these is the production of red blood cells. A protein called haemoglobin is found inside each red blood cell, and it is this that transports the oxygen around the body. Iron is essential for the production of haemoglobin as it forms an integral part of the structure. If you do not have a high enough intake of iron, then the most common side effect is iron deficiency anaemia. Iron deficiency anaemia will generally cause feelings of tiredness and fatigue, which develop because there is not enough oxygen in the blood. Shortness of breath may also develop for the same reason, and you may notice that both your heart and breathing rate increase in an attempt to compensate for the lack of red blood cells.
There are also a range of other symptoms that indicate the onset of iron deficiency anaemia, and if you have noticed a number of these, then you should speak to your doctor. A blood test will be able to determine quickly and easily whether you have the condition, and then you will need to discuss the possible methods of treatment. The symptoms that you should be aware of include:
- Changes in your physical appearance. If you don’t have enough red blood cells, then your skin will look pale, possibly with a slight blue tinge.
- Headaches, which will become increasingly common as the severity worsens. This is because the brain requires a certain amount of fluid to pass through it to maintain the correct pressure. When this pressure changes, it results in a headache. A drop in the number of red blood cells decreases the blood pressure.
- Tinnitus, which is a condition that will normally be described as ringing in the ears. Again, this may result from changes in the blood pressure, although the causes of tinnitus are often unknown.
However, the most common indication that you may have developed iron deficiency anaemia is a feeling of being constantly tired, even when you have had plenty of sleep.
In some cases, the condition may develop slowly and the onset of the symptoms could be very gradual. This is often the case when the anaemia results from a chronic, slow loss of blood, which can occur with a stomach ulcer.
If you have been diagnosed with iron deficiency anaemia, then your doctor will probably advise you to make some changes to your diet. What you eat can have a considerable impact on the number of red blood cells your body is able to produce, so eating foods that are rich in iron will boost the production considerably. Some of the foods that contain the highest levels of iron are:
- Liver. This is one of the richest iron sources available, although it should be avoided if you are pregnant. (This is extremely inconvenient, as many cases of iron deficiency anaemia occur during pregnancy.) Liver should not be eaten by pregnant women, even though it can be used to treat anaemia, because it also contains high levels of vitamin A, which can be harmful to the unborn baby, leading to developmental problems.
- Dark green leafy vegetables. Curly kale and watercress are two of the richest sources in this group. These make a great source of iron, particularly for vegetarians, and should be included in meals wherever possible, in order to boost your intake of iron. Spinach, despite its reputation, is not actually a very good source, because it also contains a substance that prevents the body from absorbing iron.
- Wholegrain foods. Try substituting the refined white varieties of bread, rice and pasta for wholegrain types instead, which have not had so many nutrients removed by processing. They contain high levels of iron, but are also good sources of a range of other substances, including fibre, and will also help you to maintain a healthy weight.
- Dried fruits, including apricots, raisins and prunes. These can either be eaten as snacks throughout the day or added to a bowl of cereal, for example, in the morning. A handful of dried fruit also counts as one of the five recommended portions a day, and supplies a range of other vitamins and minerals, in addition to iron.
There are a number of other substances that can also prevent the efficient uptake of iron and may therefore be contributing to your case of anaemia. If you regularly eat or drink any of these, then it would be advisable to cut down your intake or avoid them completely, if this is possible. These substances include:
- Caffeine. Present in both tea and coffee, along with caffeinated sodas, energy drinks and chocolate, this chemical is more common than you might expect. If you drink large amounts of tea or coffee every day, then you should definitely consider switching to one of the many decaffeinated varieties that is available, at least until your levels of iron have returned to normal.
- Calcium, which is widely found in dairy foods. This one cannot be cut out of the diet entirely, as it is essential for the health of teeth and bones. However, the amount can be reduced.
- Phytic acid, which is found in some foods that are particularly rich in iron, notably wholegrain cereals. In cases such as this, you should continue to eat wholegrains, but do not rely on them as your only source of dietary iron.
Some medications can also prevent the uptake of iron, so you should discuss your prescriptions with your doctor to ensure that they are not responsible for your symptoms.