Health Services

Anemia: When Low Iron Is the Cause

What is anemia?
Anemia occurs when your blood doesn't have enough hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein in your red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. A common cause of anemia is not having enough iron. (Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin.)

What can cause low iron levels?
A number of things can cause you to be low in iron:

  • Lack of iron in the diet. This is mostly a problem for children, young women, and some vegetarians. Children who drink a lot of milk and don't eat iron-rich foods and young women who follow "fad" diets may be at risk for iron deficiency.
  • Blood loss. This is a common reason for iron deficiency anemia in adults. Heavy periods may cause anemia. Blood loss can also be caused by internal bleeding, usually in the digestive tract. A stomach ulcer, ulcerative colitis, cancer, or taking aspirin or similar medicine for a long time can cause bleeding in your stomach or intestines.
  • That's why it's important to find the reason for a low iron level.

How is anemia diagnosed?
Talk to your health care provider if you think you might have anemia. A blood test will probably be done to diagnose anemia. Other tests may be needed to find out what's causing the anemia.

Can anemia be prevented?
Some types can be prevented, such as those caused by diet. You can help prevent this type of anemia by making sure you eat foods that have iron. See the box below for a list of iron-rich foods.

How is anemia treated?
It depends on what's causing the anemia. For example, if anemia results from losing too much blood, the cause of the blood loss will need to be treated. If anemia results from a diet that's low in iron, your healthcare provider may recommend a change in your diet or iron pills.

How can I increase the iron in my diet?
Your body best absorbs the iron in meats. Eating a small amount of meat along with other sources of iron, such as certain vegetables, can help you get even more iron out of these foods. Taking vitamin C pills or eating foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits or juice, at the same time you eat iron-rich foods or take your iron pill can help your body absorb the iron better.

Some foods block the absorption of iron. These include coffee, tea, egg yolks, milk, fiber and soy protein. Try to avoid these when you're eating food high in iron.

Can iron pills cause problems?
Iron pills can cause stomach upset, heartburn and constipation. Be sure to tell your health care provider about any discomfort you notice.

Revised 5/05