Iron plays an important role in the body, in particular as the main component of haemoglobin, the oxygen carrying pigment in red blood cells. It is therefore necessary for the body to get the right amount of iron. There are a number of iron disorders that can lead to the body having either too much or too little iron to function properly.
*Iron Deficiency Anaemia
This is the result of insufficient iron in the body and can be caused either but not ingesting enough iron in the diet or by the body not absorbing iron correctly. The lack of iron leads to fatigue, dizziness, weakness and a general feeling of malaise. It is more common in women than men due to their increased iron needs for menstruation, and may also occur during pregnancy, following surgery, bleeding or blood donation, during rapid periods of growth in children, and at any other time the body requires more iron than usual.
Strict vegetarians and vegans are more likely to be anaemic as they do not consume red meat which contains haem iron, the most efficiently absorbed form of iron. Usually however, their diets contain sufficient non-haem iron from plant sources to support the body’s iron requirements.
Iron absorption can be affected by some diseases. Those affecting the digestive tract such as Crohn’s diease can reduce the ability of the body to absorb iron. Medications used to treat acid reflux, such as antacids and proton pump inhibitors also affect iron absorption, along with calcium supplements and certain foods including dairy products and those containing caffeine.
This form of anaemia is caused by the destruction of red blood cells. It can be caused by an inherited condition such as sickle cell anaemia or thalassemia where the red blood cells are defective, or may be as the result of toxins or stressors such as infections, drugs, chemical exposure, burns or tumours. It can also occur in babies if the mother’s immune system inappropriately recognises the fetus. This tends to occur due to a Rhesus mismatch when the mother recognises the antigen’s in the baby’s blood as foreign leading to destruction of the baby’s red blood cells. This can be treated with a blood transfusion either immediately after birth, or in severe cases while still in the uterus.
Too much iron can be as much of a problem as not enough, causing symptoms such as fatigue, joint and abdominal pain, and a change in skin colour. The excess iron can build up in the organs, damaging them.
Hemochromatosis is often genetic, affecting an individual by absorbing too much iron from the diet. It can also be caused by too high an iron intake through too many iron supplements, repeated blood transfusions, liver disease or alcoholism. It is more common in men than women and is usually diagnosed later in life, after the excess iron has built up enough for symptoms to develop.
The excess iron must be removed from the body to prevent damage. This can be done by blood letting, which needs to be performed frequently for the rest of the individual’s life. Chelating agents which cause excess iron to be excreted can also be used.