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Iron values: too high, too low - what are the consequences?

Iron values: too high, too low - what are the consequences?



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What are the optimal iron values

People have increased iron levels in red blood cells, which can fluctuate by up to 20 percent. A lack of this important trace element, like an excess, leads to symptoms of illness.

The most important facts

  • Iron is needed to transport oxygen in the blood.
  • Because the substance is ingested with food, it can easily become deficient.
  • The values ​​fluctuate throughout the day and from meal to meal.
  • The iron content in the body is usually too low rather than too high. However, both have in common that they lead to severe symptoms of the disease.

What do we need iron for and how do we take it in?

The trace element transports the oxygen in the blood and is important for oxidation, for energy generation in the cells and for cell respiration. This way, oxygen is stored in the red muscle dye. The oxygen is transported into the cells together with the hemoglobin.

We feed ourselves the substance through food, but only about ten percent get into the blood, which corresponds to around five milligrams. Since the organism can only store iron in small portions, there is an ongoing need. This is one of the reasons why the deficiency is most widespread among trace elements, particularly women.

What does iron contain?

It is found primarily in animal products such as meat, with liver containing a very high concentration. Legumes, salsify, carrots, spinach and nuts also contain significant amounts of the trace element. It should be noted that the body can absorb animal sources better than vegetable sources. While vitamin C improves recovery, tea, coffee, calcium and phosphorus tend to be a hindrance.

How can the values ​​be calculated?

The level of iron in the blood fluctuates throughout the day, peaking in the afternoon and lowest at night. Changes occur after eating. In the blood, the iron binds to a protein called transferrin, which carries out the transport within the body. If iron is stored, it binds to the protein ferritin. Nowadays, doctors no longer determine an iron deficiency or an excess by measuring the iron level, but by measuring the transferrin saturation. Those affected can also carry out the measurement themselves by purchasing such a test in a pharmacy.

With the help of iron, transferrin and ferritin levels, medicine can determine the cause of a disturbed iron balance. If there is inflammation, the iron and ferritin content is reduced. In pregnant women, on the other hand, the iron content in the blood increases. The ferritin level drops, which implies that the iron binds poorly to the protein and cannot be stored.

Low iron levels

The trigger can be, for example, a diet with too little iron, but there is also the possibility that there are factors that make iron absorption difficult. This includes alcoholism in particular. Sport can also lead to an undersupply of iron, since we lose minerals and trace elements through sweat and the kidneys with great effort. Other possible triggers are bowel diseases, tumors, digestive problems, obesity, kidney problems and internal bleeding.

A major cause of iron deficiency in women is heavy menstrual bleeding, which is associated with endometriosis (thickening in the wall of the uterus). Since pregnant and breastfeeding women regularly suffer from iron deficiency, you should also take in iron.

Basically, 60 percent of iron is bound to the red blood pigment hemoglobin, and deficiency can also occur after operations, chronic infections and malignant neoplasms.

Differences in industrialized and developing countries

In industrialized countries, blood loss from menstruation, accidents, tumors or chronic inflammation are the main causes of iron deficiency. In developing countries, on the other hand, the main causes are bacterial diseases such as tuberculosis and parasite-induced diseases such as malaria or malnutrition.

How does an iron deficiency show up?

At the beginning, the body can still compensate for an insufficient supply, whereby the first early symptoms become noticeable. Typical symptoms are dry skin, split ends, brittle nails, torn corners of the mouth, altered mucous membranes in the mouth and a burning sensation on the tongue.

In the long term, iron deficiency leads to a special form of anemia. Paleness, chronic fatigue and general malaise are symptomatic of this, although it should be mentioned that those affected freeze easily. On top of that, people's performance drops, making them very easy to exhaust. Because dizziness and headache are also side effects, people who do not know the cause suspect that they have contracted a flu or have too much negative stress. However, classic cold symptoms such as runny nose and cough are not part of an iron deficiency, especially since there is no fever. On the contrary - those affected can even suffer from an under-temperature. Joint pain can also occur and the skin can turn bronze-colored. Heavy bleeding, digestive system disorders, dieting and pregnancy can lead to iron deficiency anemia.

Iron deficiency as a defense

However, such a deficiency and the anemia associated with infection do not always have to be negative, because bacteria and parasites also require iron, since otherwise they cannot survive. In order to fight infections, the body forms cytokines which raise the body temperature, which temporarily makes iron availability in the blood difficult and hinders the growth of the pathogens. As a result, an increased iron supply would be counterproductive here.

How does an increased iron value come about?

If you have a deficiency in vitamin B12 or your body contains too little folic acid, this leads to an increase in iron levels. However, this can also be an indication of an illness. With hemochromatosis, an iron storage disease, the body, for example, can no longer adequately store iron, which leads to an increase in iron levels in the blood. However, this can also be triggered by viral infections of the liver. The contraceptive pill, estrogen, cortisone, iron supplements and erythrocyte concentrates can also be beneficial.

The causes are:

  • Hemolytic anemia - a form of anemia caused by the destruction of red blood cells;
  • Aplastic anemia - anemia caused by reduced cell formation in the bone marrow;
  • Blood transfusions;
  • iron intake too high;
  • Blood cancer (leukemia);
  • Hepatitis and alcoholism.

When to the doctor?

If you suffer from diseases such as hepatitis or leukemia, or if you have lost blood as a result of an accident or surgery, the medical staff will always measure your iron levels. However, if none of these diseases are present, you should definitely consult a doctor if you have

  • are chronically tired,
  • can hardly concentrate, "everything is too much" for you,
  • You have dizziness and headache at the same time,
  • You have heavy menstrual bleeding and feel very exhausted before and during it.

What to do about excess iron?

In a severe case of excess, bloodletting helps. Blood is drawn from a vein using an inserted needle. For example, people suffering from the disease "Polycythemia vera" produce too many blood cells, which can be reduced by multiple bloodletting, which lowers the iron content.

What to do about iron deficiency?

If you want to prevent a possible iron deficiency, an iron-rich diet with about 10-20 mg a day is recommended. If the iron deficiency has already started, you can get "superfoods" such as pistachios, chanterelles, liver sausage, fried liver or heart. As a vegetarian, you can use beetroot, peas, beans and lentils.

Avoid rhubarb and spinach (oxalate), corn and rice (phytate), black tea and coffee (tannins). Rather choose beneficial foods with vitamin C: orange, lemon, grapefruit, lime, bell pepper or broccoli.

How common is iron deficiency?

In Germany, around three percent of men and around ten percent of women suffer from iron deficiency.

Food supplements

Warning: Before you take iron as a dietary supplement in the form of preparations, talk to your doctor in advance so that he can recommend a dosage. If you consume too much iron supplements, whether as juice, capsules or tablets, this can lead to stomach problems, dark stools, vomiting, diarrhea or even a circulatory breakdown. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Dr. phil. Utz Anhalt, Dr. med. Andreas Schilling

Swell:

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  • Andrew Armitage, Diego Moretti: The Importance of Iron Status for Young Children in Low- and Middle-Income Countries: A Narrative Review, Pharmaceuticals, (accessed June 25, 2019), MDPI
  • Jan Hastka, Georgia Metzgeroth, Norbert Gattermann: Iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia, German Society for Hematology and Medical Oncology e.V., (accessed June 25, 2019), DGHO
  • Nynke van den Broek, EA Letsky, Sarah White, Alan Shenkin: Iron status in pregnant women: Which measurements are valid ?, British Journal of Haematology, (accessed June 25, 2019), NCBI


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