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Iron deficiency anemia is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies worldwide, affecting millions of people.

Although it’s a condition often associated with fatigue, it presents a range of symptoms and can significantly affect an individual’s quality of life.

This blog post aims to delve into the causes, symptoms, and treatments of iron deficiency anemia, helping you understand this prevalent condition better.


What is Iron Deficiency Anemia?


Iron deficiency anemia is a condition characterized by a lack of healthy red blood cells due to insufficient iron in the body.

Iron is crucial for producing hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that enables them to carry oxygen around the body.

When your body lacks iron, it cannot produce enough hemoglobin, leading to decreased oxygen supply to your tissues, causing symptoms like fatigue, weakness, and difficulty concentrating.


Causes of Iron Deficiency Anemia


Several factors can lead to iron deficiency anemia:

  • Inadequate dietary intake: Our primary source of iron is our diet. Foods rich in iron include meat, eggs, green leafy vegetables, and iron-fortified cereals. A diet lacking these can result in an iron deficiency. 
  • Absorption issues: Conditions such as celiac disease or surgical procedures that remove parts of the stomach or small intestine can hinder the body’s ability to absorb iron efficiently. 
  • Pregnancy: Pregnant women require significantly more iron to support their growing babies and the increase in their blood volume. Without adequate iron supplementation, this could lead to deficiency. 
  • Blood loss: Conditions that cause blood loss, such as heavy menstrual periods or chronic diseases like peptic ulcers and colorectal cancer, can deplete the body’s iron stores.




Symptoms of Iron Deficiency Anemia


Iron deficiency anemia manifests in various ways, including:

  • Fatigue and weakness: This is often the first sign of anemia, as your tissues aren’t getting enough oxygen, causing you to feel constantly tired or weak. 
  • Pale skin: Hemoglobin gives skin its rosy color, so low levels can cause your skin to become lighter. 
  • Shortness of breath: This symptom occurs because your body attempts to increase oxygen delivery to your tissues. 
  • Headaches and dizziness: Insufficient oxygen reaching the brain can cause these symptoms. 
  • Unusual cravings: Some people with iron deficiency anemia develop cravings for non-food items like ice or dirt, a condition known as pica. 
  • Restless legs syndrome: Some people with iron deficiency experience an overwhelming urge to move their legs, particularly at night.

Diagnosing Iron Deficiency Anemia

Iron deficiency anemia is diagnosed through a combination of medical history, physical examination, and laboratory tests.

Here are the typical steps in diagnosing this condition:

Medical History and Physical Examination:
Your doctor will start by asking about your symptoms, diet, family history, and any medicines you’re taking. They will also conduct a physical examination to look for signs of iron deficiency anemia such as pale skin, a fast or irregular heartbeat, or a swollen tongue.

Blood Tests:
The main diagnostic tool for iron deficiency anemia is blood testing.

Here are some of the most common tests used:

Complete Blood Count (CBC):
This test measures different components of your blood, including hemoglobin and hematocrit levels, as well as the size and shape of your red blood cells. In iron deficiency anemia, the hemoglobin level is low, and the red blood cells are usually smaller and paler than normal.

Serum Iron and Ferritin Tests: These tests measure the amount of iron in your blood and the amount of stored iron in your body, respectively. Both are typically low in iron deficiency anemia.

Transferrin Level and Total Iron-Binding Capacity (TIBC): Transferrin is a protein that carries iron in your blood, and TIBC measures how well your body can bind iron. In iron deficiency anemia, transferrin levels are high and TIBC is increased, as your body tries to maximize iron uptake.

Further Testing: If the cause of your iron deficiency anemia isn’t clear, your doctor might recommend further testing. This could include endoscopy to check for sources of internal bleeding, colonoscopy to look for bleeding in the colon, or tests to look for celiac disease, which can interfere with the absorption of iron from your diet.

Remember that iron deficiency anemia is a treatable condition, but it’s important to identify and address the underlying cause.

If you suspect you have iron deficiency anemia, it’s important to consult a healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.



Dealing With Iron Deficiency on A Daily Basis

Living with iron deficiency anemia can be challenging due to the fatigue and other symptoms associated with the condition.

Here are some strategies to manage and cope with iron deficiency anemia on a daily basis:

Follow your treatment plan: Adhere to the treatment plan set out by your doctor. This might include taking iron supplements, eating an iron-rich diet, or treating underlying medical conditions. Make sure to keep all medical appointments and contact your healthcare provider if you experience any problems with your treatment.

Eat a balanced, iron-rich diet: Include iron-rich foods in your daily diet. Lean meats, poultry, fish, iron-fortified cereals and breads, dark green leafy vegetables, beans, and lentils are all excellent sources of dietary iron. Foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, strawberries, and bell peppers, can help enhance iron absorption.

Limit intake of foods that hinder iron absorption: Certain foods and beverages, such as coffee, tea, dairy products, whole grains, and some legumes, can inhibit iron absorption if consumed at the same time as iron-rich foods or supplements.

Exercise regularly: Although it may be challenging when you’re feeling fatigued, regular moderate exercise can help stimulate your appetite, promote good sleep, and boost your energy levels. Start small and gradually increase your activity as your energy levels improve.

Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of fluids can help combat symptoms of fatigue and help with the constipation that can sometimes occur with iron supplements.

Manage stress: Chronic stress can exacerbate symptoms of anemia. Techniques such as mindfulness, deep breathing, yoga, and other relaxation exercises can help manage stress levels.

Monitor your menstrual cycle: If you are a woman with heavy menstrual bleeding, discuss this with your doctor, as it can contribute to iron deficiency anemia. There may be treatment options to manage heavy periods.

Stay connected with your healthcare team: Regular follow-ups with your healthcare provider are essential to monitor your condition and adjust treatment as needed.

Remember that recovery from iron deficiency anemia often takes time and requires consistent effort. Over time, with consistent treatment and healthy lifestyle habits, you should see improvement in your symptoms.





Despite the challenges, it is reassuring to know that iron deficiency anemia is generally treatable, and most individuals experience a significant improvement in their symptoms with appropriate management.

By adhering to recommended treatments, maintaining an iron-rich diet, and staying connected with their healthcare providers, individuals with this condition can lead a healthy, fulfilling life.

For any additional information regarding iron deficiency anemia, it’s best to find a trusted and experienced Gastroenterologist who can answer your questions clearly, recommend appropriate solutions, and perform tests with precision and expertise.

Dr. Deetlefs has earned the reputation of a trusted health expert providing consultative, diagnostic, and therapeutic endoscopic and related services to patients in Cape Town and beyond.

Dr Eduan prides himself on his ability to help his patients to the best of his ability by embracing good listening skills, effective communication, compassion and knowledge and skill honed during years of private gastroenterology practice.

If you would like to book an appointment with a gastrointestinal (GI) specialist or would simply like more information on a particular GI topic, don’t hesitate to use our online booking form
or call Dr. Deetlefs at 021 551 867.


The information on this website is to provide general guidance. In no way does any of the information provided reflect definitive medical advice and self-diagnoses should not be made based on information obtained online. It is important to consult a Gastroenterologist or medical doctor regarding ANY and ALL symptoms or signs including, but not limited to: abdominal pain, haemorrhoids or anal / rectal bleeding as it may a sign of a serious illness or condition. A thorough consultation and examination should ALWAYS be performed for an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. Be sure to call a physician or call our office today and schedule a consultation.

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© Dr. Eduan Deetlefs, Registered Gastroenterologist, GI Doc Cape Town

Our website information is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult a doctor about your specific condition. Only a trained physician can determine an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment.