Vitamin & mineral spotlight: Iron

February 1, 2023
5 minute read

Iron is an essential bodily mineral and when your levels become low it’s something you need to counteract. You might have heard people refer to themselves as being anaemic, but what does this mean in relation to being low in iron, and is it the same thing?

It’s common to believe being anaemic means not having enough iron in your diet, and while this is not the only cause of anaemia, it’s generally the most common. Let’s take a look and understand how iron plays a vital role in a functioning body, what it means to be deficient and how to remedy this.

The science bit - oxygen movement fuelled by healthy red blood cells

Red blood cells make sure oxygen moves around your body. From your lungs to your vital organs, it’s essential oxygen is circulated properly for everything to work as it should. If you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells then this doesn’t happen, and this is called anaemia. People with anaemia might start to feel tired, weak and short of breath.  

Globally, the most common cause of anaemia is an iron deficiency – not having enough iron in your body to help create a sufficient level of red blood cells. Around 500 million people worldwide are affected by iron deficiency anaemia.

Red blood cells

Common causes of iron deficiency anaemia

Depending on your age and gender, there are a few main reasons that you might develop iron deficiency anaemia.

  • Women of reproductive age - heavy periods and pregnancy are the most common causes of iron deficiency anaemia as your body needs extra iron for your baby during pregnancy  
  • Men and post-menopausal women - bleeding in the stomach or intestines, often caused by a stomach ulcer, stomach cancer, bowel cancer, or by taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

There are also less common reasons, but these can still be a contributing factor.

  • Diet - you may have a diet low in iron and over a long period of time (up to 8 years) your levels may drop below satisfactory levels
  • Malabsorption – your body may struggle to absorb dietary iron, due to existing conditions such as coeliac disease

Diagnosis and treatment

To check whether you have the right level of healthy red blood cells, your GP will order a simple blood test to check your levels. There’s nothing you need to do to prepare for this.

If your levels are low, your GP will investigate the underlying cause. They’ll ask you about your lifestyle, diet and any symptoms or health concerns you may have. Depending on the underlying cause, treatment may be necessary to increase your iron levels.  

Generally, your GP will prescribe a course of iron tablets for around 6 months. This will add iron back into your body and allow increased production of healthy red blood cells. Your GP will monitor progress throughout the recommended treatment.  

If diet has played a part in your low iron levels, or you want to boost your levels, there are plenty of iron-rich foods you can add to your diet. It’s also important to consume food and drinks which contain Vitamin C, as this will help your body absorb iron.

Iron-rich foods include:

  • dark-green leafy vegetables, such as watercress and curly kale
  • iron-fortified cereals or bread
  • brown rice 
  • pulses and beans 
  • nuts and seeds
  • white and red meat 
  • fish 
  • tofu
  • eggs 
  • dried fruit, such as dried apricots, prunes and raisins

Iron-rich foods

Useful resources

NHS – a handy overview of iron deficiency anaemia

British Dietetics Association – iron food factsheet

Coeliac UK – a guide to iron deficiency

If you want to know more about iron deficiency anaemia or have questions about adding more iron into your diet, get in touch with our friendly pharmacy team who can offer you advice and guidance.

Content last reviewed on:
February 1, 2023
Next review date:
February 1, 2025
Further reading
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