A common type of anaemia, iron deficiency is what takes place when the blood is missing out on healthy red blood cells. These cells are what carry oxygen, through the blood, to body tissues. According to estimates from the Medibank Better Health Index, more than 1 million Australians were diagnosed with iron deficiency in 2016 - a jump from 861,000 people in 2008.

For those suffering from iron deficiency, their bodies aren’t able to produce enough haemoglobin, which is the compound that carries oxygen in our red blood cells. To sum it up:

Low iron = Low haemoglobin = Low levels of oxygen in the body.

This post looks at what causes iron deficiency and how this condition can be treated. 

Causes of iron deficiency

  • Insufficient iron in a diet

When it comes to the diagnosis of iron deficiency, insufficient iron in a patient’s diet is often the trigger.

When you skip on iron-rich food like leafy greens, eggs, meat, beans, and lentils, it’s entirely possible to develop symptoms of anaemia. While we don’t walk around thinking about how iron is responsible for the distribution of oxygen in the body, it is an important fact to remember.

  • Blood loss

For anyone who has lost plenty of blood or experiences heavy periods, it’s entirely possible to develop iron deficiency

Because blood naturally contains red blood cells, which, in turn, contain the haemoglobin needed to carry oxygen, blood loss can trigger this condition. Regardless of the cause of chronic blood loss - whether colorectal cancer, a hernia, or anything else - iron deficiency is usually the end result. 

  • Inability to absorb iron

Coeliac disease affects the small intestine’s ability to absorb iron into the bloodstream. For those with this condition, anaemia is usually the result. This is the same if the small intestine has been bypassed or removed surgically.

  • Pregnancy

Another cause of iron deficiency is pregnancy.

Because a woman’s body and blood become a source of haemoglobin for the growing foetus, it’s important that her own iron stores are well-maintained.

The best treatment options for anaemia

Dietary changes and iron supplements

One of the first recommendations for iron deficiency is the increase of iron-rich food into a given diet. There are plenty of sources of iron, even for vegetarians and vegans. These help the body reach a state where it’s producing enough iron, organically, over time.

If anaemia is particularly severe, dietary changes alone may not be enough. Patients may be prescribed certain iron supplements to get iron levels back to normal. They are also available for children in liquid form and come with a variety of instructions.

Patients need to be mindful when they take their tablets. These should not be combined with antacids, even accidentally, simply because it can prevent the iron pills from taking effect. Antacids can, however, be taken a few hours before or after the medication for anaemia is taken.

Iron tablets with Vitamin C are also a good idea, given that the latter assists with the absorption of iron.

Treating the underlying causes of iron deficiency

Apart from dietary changes and iron supplements, it’s also important to probe deeper to identify any underlying causes of iron deficiency.

If none of the above work, symptoms may need further investigation. Depending on the cause, the following may be prescribed to treat low levels of iron:

  • Oral contraceptives to lighten heavy period flow
  • Medication to treat peptic ulcers
  • Removing bleeding polyps, tumours, or fibroids
  • Blood transfusions and/or receiving iron intravenously

Key takeaways

While iron deficiency is fairly common and affects many people in Australia, patients need to take this condition very seriously. 

By identifying what’s causing these symptoms, finding an effective treatment is simply a matter of consulting the right specialist.

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