Can I Treat Iron Deficiency Myself?
Ever since the outbreak of Covid-19, patients have reported various symptoms after catching the respiratory virus. One of these symptoms is iron deficiency. Iron deficiency (or anaemia) is caused by lack of iron. If left untreated, it can put you at further risk of illness, infection, and developing complications that affect the heart or lungs.
Research has shown that iron levels were below the normal range in about 90% of hospitalised Covid-19 patients, while 30% of patients showed iron deficiency even after 60 days of testing positive for the virus.
Have you ever wondered, can I treat iron deficiency myself? We will answer this question in this article, so keep reading to find out more.
Why does the body need iron?
Iron is an important mineral which is needed for energy, immune function and for maintaining healthy blood. Children also need iron for their growth and development.
Around 70% of your body’s iron is found in the red blood cells of your blood, called haemoglobin- this is a protein which carries oxygen in your blood, from the lungs to the tissues.
Low iron levels can cause a barrage of health issues. For example, it can obstruct oxygen flow to the brain; this creates extreme pressure on the brain, which can lead to severe headaches.
Additionally, severe iron deficiency can lead to heart problems. Without enough red blood cells, your heart has to pump harder to get enough oxygen and nutrients to the rest of your body, which can cause strain on the heart and result in heart failure or an irregular heartbeat.
How much iron do adults need daily?
- 7 mg a day for men over 18
- 8 mg a day for women aged 19 to 50
- 7 mg a day for women over 50
The recommended daily iron intake is 1.8 times higher for vegetarians and vegans, as they do not eat meat.
For pregnant women, around 27 mg of iron is needed per day.
How much iron do children need daily?
Read our chart below to see how much iron children need per day:
How much iron they need per day
7 to 12 months old
1 to 3 years old
4 to 8 years old
9 to 13 years old
How do I know if I have iron deficiency?
A blood test will confirm whether you are deficient in iron. The symptoms to look out for include:
- Tiredness or fatigue
- Feeling weak
- Low energy or lethargy
- Pale skin
- Frequent headaches
- Dry or damaged hair
- Hair loss
- If you are constantly feeling cold
- Cold hands
- Dry or damaged skin
- Brittle fingernails, which chip and crack easily
- More frequent infections
- Trouble concentrating
- Lack of appetite
- Shortness of breath
- Sore muscles
- Cracks at the corner of the mouth
- Soreness in the tongue
- Unusual cravings
- Restless legs
- Bruising easily
What are the causes of iron deficiency?
Iron deficiency can occur at almost any age, for different reasons.
People tend to experience iron deficiency because:
- They are not getting enough iron in your diet.
- Due to blood loss (e.g. because of heavy menstrual periods, regular blood donation, or chronic conditions that involve bleeding).
- When there is increased need for iron (e.g. during pregnancy and breastfeeding).
- Due to a stomach ulcer.
- Due to chronic illnesses such as cancer or autoimmune diseases.
- They are taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
- Their body is unable to absorb iron from food.
- Athletes are at greater risk of iron deficiency because regular exercise increases the body’s need for iron, and iron is lost through sweating.
Can I treat iron deficiency myself?
If you suspect you are deficient in iron (anaemic), you can ask your GP for a blood test. They will check if your red blood cell count is normal. If the test shows that your red blood cell count is low, then your GP will prescribe you iron tablets and advise you on how to take them.
You should never take iron tablets if you have not been advised to by your doctor.
Never take more than the recommended dosage of iron tablets, as directed by your physician or pharmacist. If you take too many iron supplements, this can damage your cells and even lead to serious symptoms such as iron poisoning. For this reason, it is especially important to keep iron tablets away from children.
You can, however, make efforts to improve your iron consumption through your diet. Choose foods that are rich in iron, and this will help you feel more energised and healthier.
You can also find ways to manage fatigue and bring your energy levels back up. For instance, try eating smaller meals and healthy snacks spread throughout the day, rather than 3 larger meals.
In addition, try cutting out caffeinated drinks and alcohol. Caffeine and alcohol can interfere with iron absorption and iron storage levels. So, it is far better to drink more water instead, to stay hydrated and aid the transportation of nutrients and oxygen to your cells.
Did you know that cooking in a cast-iron skillet can transfer some of the iron into your food? It sounds bizarre, but preparing food in cast-iron cookware pots can boost your iron intake.
So, with respect to the question ‘can I treat iron deficiency myself?’, the answer is: you should only take iron supplements as directed by your doctor, but you can take steps to naturally increase your iron intake through your dietary habits.
What foods contain iron?
Here is a list of foods that are rich in iron, which we recommend you incorporate in your diet as much as possible:
- Green vegetables such as spinach, kale, broccoli, cabbage, edamame and Brussels sprouts
- Vegetables including beetroot and mushrooms
- Legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, Lima beans and tofu
- Rice, quinoa
- Red meat, chicken, beef, turkey, liver
- Seafood such as trout, haddock, tuna, mackerel, oysters, mussels, clams and scallops
- Fruit such as figs, prunes, raisins, apricot, avocados, strawberries, watermelon, dates and goji berries
- Whole wheat bread and bran cereals
- Seeds such as pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, flax seeds, almonds, walnuts, cashews and pistachios
- Spirulina (dried seaweed)
- Peanut butter
- Unsweetened dark chocolate
Do iron tablets interfere with any other supplements?
Your doctor will advise you on the most appropriate way to take your iron tablets. For example, they may advise you to take your iron tablets with orange juice, to help the iron absorb into your body.
Generally, it is best to take iron tablets separately from other supplements, such as calcium. This will help you get the full benefit from each medication. Take iron tablets in a separate dose, around 2 hours apart from other supplements.
Certain medications (such as penicillin) may impair the ability of iron tablets. So, you should always tell your doctor which medicines you are taking, and they will advise you on how to take your iron tablets alongside your regular medication.
Why is it important for pregnant women to have healthy iron levels?
Iron plays a key role in a healthy pregnancy- pregnant women need roughly twice the amount of iron than they did before. A pregnant woman’s body needs iron to make extra blood for the baby, to supply oxygen from her lungs to her organs and to the baby.
If a pregnant woman has low iron levels, then this increases the risk of premature birth, low birth weight and postpartum depression.
Pregnant women are often advised by their doctors to take prenatal vitamins which contain iron, to prevent and treat iron deficiency.
Does Covid-19 affect iron levels?
It’s not a definite thing that Covid will decrease your iron levels. However, the coronavirus has been shown to change the way some people metabolise iron, leading to lower iron levels up to 2 months after infection.
If you have caught Covid, it is a wise idea to book in for a blood test after you have recovered from the virus. This will confirm whether your iron levels are normal and if you need to increase your iron intake.
It doesn’t help that fatigue, lethargy and poor appetite are common symptoms of catching Covid. Therefore, it is really important to boost your iron levels with a nutritious diet and iron tablets if your doctor prescribes them to you.
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We hope you now have the answer to the question ‘can I treat iron deficiency myself?’