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Confused about iron?

Everyone has heard about it. Few people understand it. What is iron and what functions does it have in the body? Is iron checked on routine blood tests? The purpose of this article is to give the reader a basic understanding about iron.

Iron is a very important mineral that is needed by the human body for many purposes. The most commonly known purpose is for production of hemoglobin which is a major component of red blood cells and is responsible for carrying oxygen to the body's organs. When hemoglobin production is low, the condition is called anemia. While is anemia can be diagnosed with simple, routine blood tests, iron deficiency oftentimes can be missed if anemia is not yet present. Many people confuse the terms "low iron" with anemia and think that these terms are interchangeable, but they are not.

Iron is present in the soil and should be present in many meats and foods, but the amount of iron present in today's food supply is dramatically different from that found in foods from many decades ago. Also, there are many food intolerances present today which make for an unhealthy gut. An unhealthy gut does not absorb iron (or other vitamins and minerals) appropriately so low iron levels may result.

Another cause of low iron in women is menstrual blood loss. Heavy periods are the most common cause of iron deficiency in menstruating women. Pregnancy is another common cause of iron deficiency. Outside of these two scenarios, iron deficiency should not be present, and a cause for it should be sought. Frequent blood donations (or phlebotomy) is another benign, yet common, cause of iron deficiency. People who donate blood frequently should take oral iron even if their blood count is high. A high blood count does NOT mean that the iron levels are high. Sometimes, iron deficiency can be caused by worrisome conditions such as bleeding ulcers or even cancer. If a cause is not known for low iron or for anemia, evaluation is very important.

Symptoms of low iron may include fatigue, hair loss, paleness, rapid heartbeat, headache, fingernail changes, poor immune function, frequent infections, swollen tongue or even unusual cravings for non-food items. This unusual craving is called pica. While ice craving is somewhat common and may or may not be associated with iron deficiencies, other unusual cravings may be indicative of iron deficiencies. Patients may crave things such as mud, clay, dirt or even chalk!

If you have symptoms suggestive of iron deficiency, ask your healthcare provider to check a serum iron level and serum ferritin level. The serum ferritin level is a blood test that checks stored iron. While a low blood count (or anemia) may indicate the presence of iron deficiency, the absence of anemia does NOT mean that the iron levels are normal.

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