(Second in a three-part series)
by Mila McManus, MD
***If you missed Part One, click here.
Iron deficiency is quite common and can be caused by many factors[i]. Common causes include gastrointestinal bleeding (e.g., due to long-term use of NSAIDS or aspirin, ulcers, polyps, and colon cancer), urinary tract bleeding, blood loss from injury or surgery, heavy menstrual periods, and frequent blood donation or blood tests. Deficiency can also be caused by both inadequate supplies in the diet as well as conditions that limit the amount of iron absorbed by the body.
Almost anyone can develop an iron deficiency, though it is most common in menstruating women, pregnant and breast feeding women, and infants and children ages 6 months to 2 years who don’t get adequate dietary iron from mother’s breast milk or cow’s milk. Vegans or vegetarians can easily become iron deficient as well. Teenage growth spurts are another potential risk factor for iron deficiency.
As we mentioned in Part One of this three part series on iron, excess iron levels, though rare, are usually caused by a hereditary disease called hemochromatosis. Too much iron is absorbed by the body and stored in organs, most often the liver, heart, or pancreas, and capable of causing life-threatening conditions such as liver disease, heart problems, and diabetes. As you may recall from part one, once iron is in the blood stream, the body does not have the ability to excrete it.
There are, however, causes of excess iron that are not genetic[ii] and these are called secondary hemochromatosis. Chronic liver disease such as hepatitis C infection, or alcohol related liver disease could cause excess iron storage as could blood transfusions, taking oral iron pills, having iron infusions, or long-term kidney dialysis.
Next week we will conclude this three part series on iron by providing solutions for addressing too little or too much iron.