Testing Iron Deficiencies & Understanding the Results

Testing Iron Deficiencies & Understanding the Results

Iron is more than just a metal used in cookware and countless industrial applications – it’s a mineral found in fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, and all kinds of others foods that is essential for a healthy body. However, around 10 million Americans are iron deficient, and most of them don’t know it. Due to the negative health consequences surrounding iron deficiency and anemia, it’s extremely important to both be aware of iron levels in the blood and what they indicate about overall health.

How Does Iron Affect the Body?

Iron is an important nutrient in a healthy diet. While most people are aware of the common vitamins and minerals, like vitamin A, vitamin B, or protein, iron tends to fall by the wayside in diet planning and, consequently, is the common nutritional deficiency in the United States. Women are far more likely to be iron deficient than men, with around 10% of American women assumed to be deficient in iron.

Iron plays a critical role in oxygen circulation. It is a component in hemoglobin, the substance found in red blood cells that carries oxygen through the blood and to the lungs. When iron is deficient, the body can’t create enough blood cells to carry sufficient oxygen. This in turn can negatively affect numerous bodily systems and organs, including both the respiratory system and brain function.

While two-thirds of the iron in the body is found in hemoglobin, iron does play other roles in keeping the body healthy. For example, it’s an important part of things like healthy hair growth, nail strength, and cell development. In essence, appropriate iron levels are very important, and when adequate iron isn’t a part of diet or supplementation, serious health consequences can arise.

Signs of Iron Deficiency

Iron deficiency can manifest in several ways depending on the individual in question and the extent of iron deficiency. Initial symptoms can be so mild that they’re hard to notice but as deficiency worsens, so do the side effects.

The most common symptoms include:

  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Pale skin
  • Rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath
  • Dizziness, headaches, and light-headedness
  • Cold feet and hands
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Poor appetite
  • Cravings for non-nutritious substances, like ice

In many cases, correcting iron deficiencies can show immediate alleviation in symptoms. However, for severe cases, it may take several weeks or months for individuals suffering from severe iron deficiency to notice an alleviation of all side effects.

The best way to prevent or address an iron deficiency is to increase iron in the diet or to take supplements high in iron. It is often recommended to increase intake of poultry, fish, shellfish, spinach, legumes, quinoa, and dark chocolate. Those with concerning or potentially dangerous side effects, like a rapid heartbeat and muscle weakness, are advised to work with a doctor to determine the proper dosage for treatment.

Iron Deficiency Anemia

A deficiency of iron can lead to a form of anemia related to inadequate iron levels to produce enough hemoglobin. Iron deficiency anemia has several causes, including:

  • Blood loss; a loss of blood results in lost blood cells and hemoglobin, leaving the body with insufficient levels
  • A lack of iron in the diet
  • An inability to absorb iron; this can be caused by several different intestinal conditions, like celiac disease
  • Pregnancy
  • A vegetarian or vegan diet; while vegetables can have iron in them, it is not as plentiful or easy to absorb as iron in meat

While some side effects of low iron can be tolerable, anemia is serious and should be addressed right away. Anemia can cause heart problems, growth problems, and premature births and low birth weight in pregnant women.

Iron Levels in the Blood

As iron is present in the hemoglobin in the blood, blood testing is a common way to determine iron levels in the body. Tests can pinpoint specific levels and thus any potential risk factors or diagnoses. However, it’s important to note that iron levels vary between men and women as well as those of different weights and ages.

In general, normal hematocrit levels for women fall between 34.9 and 44.5 percent and 38.8 to 50 percent for men. Hemoglobin levels, on the other hand, are normal between a range of 13.5 to 17.5 grams per deciliter of blood for men and 2.0 to 15.5 grams for women. If individual circumstances may warrant a normal level above or below these thresholds a physician or researcher will make this information available upon the analysis of results. Levels in children for both hematocrit and hemoglobin can vary greatly based on age, sex, and weight.

Testing for Iron Deficiency

Testing for iron deficiencies can occur in several ways. In general, most physicians choose to run a complete blood count test, which evaluates red blood cell counts, hemoglobin and hematocrit levels, and mean corpuscular volume. All of these panels can indicate warning signs for iron deficiency anemia.

To complete these tests, doctors will use a thin needle inserted around the crook of the arm to withdraw blood. This blood will then be sent to a lab where it will be processed for all relevant metrics, like hemoglobin levels. Upon receipt, doctors will use the results of these tests to make diagnoses, in conjunction with any symptoms.

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