When iron falls short

Last updated 00:00 03/09/2007

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Tired? Vague? Maybe you're anaemic. Judy Adamson reports on a syndrome few people recognise.

Women who feel constantly tired often discover that they're iron-deficient.

Given that most people have hectic work, home and social lives, it's easy to blame exhaustion on an over-full schedule.

Yet data collected by the Australian Longitudinal Study of Women's Health shows that up to a third of Australian women under 50 have had iron deficiency diagnosed at some stage, so there may well be more to it than just being busy.

But what does it mean to be iron- deficient? Are there any clues to alert you to its presence apart from tiredness?

Dr James Biggs, an expert in iron metabolism and a part-time lecturer in the faculty of medicine at the University of New South Wales, says it's perfectly possible to be iron- deficient and still have normal levels of haemoglobin.

"The majority of iron is in the form of haemoglobin in the blood, but there are also a lot of iron stores in the body, particularly in the liver," he explains.

"A normal person might have as much as 1.5 grams in storage, so when you lose those stores you're said to be iron- deficient."

The symptoms of iron deficiency are so general they're difficult for people to recognise, says Dr Greg Anderson, head of the Iron Metabolism Laboratory at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research.

"If you go into the street and ask 100 people if they consistently feel tired, you'll probably find that most will say yes," he says.

"This has been shown in a variety of studies. The symptoms are so non-specific that just as many non-iron-deficient people will say they suffer from chronic tiredness as those with iron deficiency."

Iron deficiency can have negative effects on a person's immune system, ability to think clearly, work performance and body temperature.

But often these symptoms are attributed to lifestyle issues – working too much, partying too much – so the underlying problem isn't discovered.

Adam Walsh, a dietitian and associate lecturer in the school of exercise and nutrition sciences at Deakin University, says that because the symptoms of iron deficiency appear gradually, people assume they are caused by things such as a decrease in their fitness level or an over-busy life.

"Women lose quite a great deal of iron through menstruation, and their needs do increase throughout pregnancy, so if they don't watch what's happening there they can become iron-deficient or anaemic during pregnancy," he says.

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"Also, if you are breastfeeding and your iron stores are low, then certainly a baby will receive low iron through breast milk, but the body will try and give the baby as much as possible, so mothers will suffer with respect to that." Premature babies can be at risk just because their early birth means iron stores, which mainly accumulate in the third trimester of a pregnancy, are not what they should be. And children going through puberty will need extra iron as part of their rapid growth.

Vegetarians can be anaemic, partly because they're not eating meat, but also because they're not absorbing the iron in plant material efficiently.

There are things that can be done to bump up iron levels. For most people, simple dietary interventions, such as increasing the intake of vitamin C, will help the body absorb iron more efficiently. Eating red meat is another option. If iron deficiency is more severe, then iron tablets and other supplements are available.

Fairfax

- © Fairfax NZ News

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