Anemia refers to a lack of healthy red blood cells in the body. There are many different types of anemia, but the most common cause is due to iron deficiency.
Iron binds with hemoglobin to help red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. Red blood cells are made in the bone marrow and live for about 100 days. The spleen, which lives on the left side of the body, breaks down old blood and recycles the iron to help create new blood cells.
A person develops iron deficiency anemia if:
- you have bleeding and the iron is lost with it
- you do not eat or absorb enough iron in your intestines
- you need more iron than usual such as during pregnancy or breast-feeding.
Causes of bleeding include heavy menstrual periods, cancer, bleeding in the stomach, esophagus, or intestines, and the use of aspirin or anti-inflammatories long-term. Your body may not absorb enough iron due to celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, gastric bypass surgery, or taking too many antacids. You may also not be getting enough iron if you are a strict vegetarian or an older adult with a limited diet.
People with anemia often have fatigue, brittle nails, feel dizzy, appear pale, and may have an elevated heart rate or shortness of breath. Your doctor will order blood tests including a complete blood count, hematocrit, hemoglobin, and iron testing. If there is bleeding in the intestine or stomach, a colonoscopy, fecal blood test, or upper endoscopy may be recommended to help find the source.
Iron supplements are important to rebuild your body’s healthy red blood cells. It will take 2 or 3 months for your iron levels to build up to normal amounts. Talk with your doctor today if you have concerns about anemia.
Reviewed by Muhammad Emran, MD