Iron deficiency occurs when the body lacks enough iron for the formation of haemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that helps transport oxygen. This can happen in two ways:
- absolute iron deficiency is said to occur when the body has abnormally low levels of iron; in contrast,
- functional iron deficiency is when the body has sufficient iron supplies, but for some reason, the body cannot make use of iron at normal rates of efficiency.
When the body doesn’t have enough iron to form haemoglobin, it leads to a low red blood cell count, and insufficient oxygen in tissues and muscles. The lack of haemoglobin is termed anaemia, and this often results in adverse effects on one’s quality of life.
How do you know if you have iron-deficiency anaemia?
Some of the effects and symptoms of anaemia are described below. If you observe any of these signs in yourself, you might want to get checked out for iron-deficiency anaemia.
- Constant tiredness
A lack of oxygen reaching the tissues and muscles in the body deprives them of energy. As a result, the heart has to work harder to deliver oxygen-rich blood to various parts of the body, leading to a feeling of tiredness. It might be difficult to pinpoint iron deficiency as the cause from fatigue alone, but if you are iron-deficient, you will most likely experience this persistent sluggishness along with weakness, crankiness, poor concentration, and low productivity.
- Pale skin
Haemoglobin is what gives blood its red colour, and what gives colour to lips, the insides of the eyelids, and rosy cheeks. Hence, low levels of haemoglobin make people appear paler. People with iron deficiency may lose their healthy, rosy colour, or exhibit pale lips, inner eyelids, gums, or nails. Also known as pallor, paleness is more common in moderate to severe anaemia cases.
- Shortness of breath
When the body is not receiving enough oxygen for energy, everyday activities like walking or climbing the stairs can feel more strenuous than usual. This leads to an increased breathing rate and shortness of breath as the body tries to inhale more oxygen. Less commonly, persons with iron-deficiency may experience heart palpitations due to the heart having to work harder to move oxygen-rich blood around.
- Swollen, pale tongue
Myoglobin is another protein in the blood, and it helps to support the structure of the muscles. Apart from low haemoglobin levels causing the tongue to look pale, low myoglobin levels can cause the tongue to feel sore, abnormally smooth, and swollen. Having dry mouth, cracks in the mouth or on the tongue can also be a sign of iron deficiency.
- Spoon-shaped fingernails
A rarer symptom of iron deficiency is koilonychia – brittle or spoon-shaped fingernails. You may first notice that your nails chip and crack more easily than usual. As koilonychia worsens, the nails’ contours dip from convex to concave, giving it a spoon-like appearance. Koilonychia is less common, and usually occurs only in more severe cases of anaemia.
What does it mean if you have iron deficiency?
Iron deficiency is an indicator that something is wrong in the body – it could be a diet with insufficient iron, or excessive bleeding from menstruation or internal injury. It is also often an indicator of other health conditions, some of which include cancer and gastrointestinal diseases.
In particular, people with iron-deficiency anaemia are across the board more likely to develop cancer, and the converse is true as well – people with cancer are more likely to get iron-deficiency anaemia. One study showed that iron deficiency was most often associated with patients of pancreatic cancer, colorectal cancer, and lung cancer. Another research found that 6% of iron-deficiency anaemia cases were linked to colorectal cancer (which is often accompanied by bleeding in the colon).
So, being alert to symptoms of iron deficiency is not enough – if you also notice additional signs like persistent diarrhoea or constipation, bloated stomach, blood in stools, nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain, it is highly recommended you get tested for cancer or other gastrointestinal conditions as well. Your general practitioner may refer you to a colon cancer specialist if your risk of contracting colorectal cancer is high.