Iron is important for many functions in the body with a very important one helping to produce healthy red blood cells, so they can transport oxygen around your body. Iron levels can be tested by having a blood test that measures the iron stores (ferritin) in the blood. Iron deficiency means lower than the recommended normal range of iron stores in your body. We get our iron from foods that are rich in iron, examples of these are red meat, green leafy veg, nuts, dried fruits or cereals and flour fortified with iron. The most common cause of low iron is bleeding, but it can also be caused by low iron intake in your diet, or poor absorption of iron into the body through the intestine (more common with conditions such as coeliac disease). Women of childbearing age can be particularly prone to low iron especially if you have heavy periods or during pregnancy. If you have very low iron levels or low iron levels for a prolonged amount of time you may develop a condition called iron-deficiency anaemia. This is where the low iron levels affect the production of the red blood cells, so less oxygen can be transported around your body. Some of the symptoms of iron deficiency can be feeling tired, loss of motivation, poor concentration, pale complexion, palpitations and hair and nails becoming more brittle.
You can help increase your iron levels by eating food rich in iron and avoiding consuming too much coffee, tea and dairy as these can lessen the absorption of iron into the body. If you are taking iron supplements, the best way to ensure you are getting the most benefit is to avoid eating food or drinking tea or milk containing drinks an hour before and an hour afterwards. Certain medications such as antibiotics and antiacid medication can interfere with iron absorption too, so speak to your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions specific to you. It has been found that vitamin C can help with the absorption of iron, so you could try having your tablet with some orange juice. Iron tablets can make your poo go black in colour which is normal and can also cause some people to get an upset tummy or constipation. Speak to your doctor if this is affecting you and becoming bothersome.
If you have any symptoms of low iron you should see your doctor first for an assessment because the symptoms are quite general so you may be experiencing may not be related to iron deficiency. You should also see your doctor if your poo looks black (unless you are taking iron tablets) or your periods are particularly heavy. We advise not to self-diagnose iron deficiency and take an iron supplement as too much of a good thing can also be harmful.
The doctor will ask you about your current symptoms, your medical history and take a blood test to test your iron levels. If the test shows your iron levels are low the doctor may prescribe you iron tablets. You will likely need to take them for a number of months, and your doctor may arrange further blood tests.
You are likely to still be fit for work if you have iron deficiency however your doctor can discuss this with you as it may depend on the severity of your symptoms and the physicality of the work you do.