What is Iron Deficiency?
Iron deficiency in women is a well-recognized health issue. However, it is one of the most neglected topics in men’s health. Nevertheless, studies show that men are barely consuming enough iron. Although a severe iron deficiency in men may be uncommon, sub-clinical deficiency is not rare.
Studies show that about 1-2% of men have severe iron deficiency and are living with iron deficiency anemia. Thus, it is by no means a rare condition. Moreover, iron deficiency may be pretty common in men living in developing nations, in certain ethnic groups.
Additionally, older men and those living with chronic ailments, maybe even be at greater risk of iron deficiency. Adult men need about 8 mg of iron a day. Although most men are consuming enough iron, some, like those living with chronic gastrointestinal diseases, cancer, heart conditions, may need more iron.
Additionally, it is essential to know that prolonged use of certain medications may also increase the risk of iron deficiency in men. Thus, drugs like levodopa (used to treat Parkinson’s), proton pump inhibitors like omeprazole (used to treat gastritis, gastric ulcers, GERD) may interfere with iron metabolism.
Role of iron in health and signs of its deficiency
Iron is mainly needed for the formation of hemoglobin present in red blood cells. Hemoglobin plays a vital role in oxygen transportation. Thus, most of the iron in the human body is present in the blood.
But iron is not just essential for blood formation. It has multiple roles in health.
However, there is little discussion about other roles of iron in health. Iron is also needed for energy production. It supports the growth of muscles. It is present in myoglobin. Iron is also required for regenerative processes, neurological development. Without iron, body cells cannot function normally. Iron is also vital for the formation of certain hormones.
Perhaps the most significant sign of iron deficiency is iron deficiency anemia. It is worth understanding that the normal hemoglobin level in men is slightly higher than in women. Thus, in men normal range of hemoglobin is between 13.5 to 17.5 grams per deciliter.
Signs of iron deficiency anemia could be extreme fatigue, weakness, pale skin, headaches, dizziness, chest pain, cold feet and hand, brittleness of nails, and tongue inflammation.
Although iron deficiency anemia is quite a well-known condition, a less poorly understood condition is a so-called sub-clinical iron deficiency. Such individuals would have a normal level of hemoglobin. Nevertheless, a person may feel fatigued and weak and may readily get tired on prolonged physical activity.
Testing for iron deficiency
Complete blood count and hemoglobin (Hg) tests are the most commonly used test to know about iron deficiency. However, other tests can provide lots of useful information like serum ferritin, serum iron, transferrin, or total iron-binding capacity (TIBC).
Additionally, doctors may need to carry out microscopic tests to exclude certain rare blood diseases.
Further, doctors would also need to understand if the iron deficiency is due to dietary causes (rare in men) or some health conditions. Thus, they would test blood in stool and look for abnormalities in the gastrointestinal tract by using endoscopy. Urine tests may be needed in many cases.
Testing for iron deficiency is very important for men, as it may help diagnose the underlying cause. In addition, in many cases, there may be some severe undiagnosed conditions causing iron deficiency. Therefore, proper diagnosis of iron deficiency in men is perhaps more critical than in females.
Managing iron deficiency
The best way to manage iron deficiency is to take iron supplements. There are ferric and ferrous salts like ferric citrate, ferric sulfate, ferrous sulfate, and ferrous gluconate. It is worth knowing that the bioavailability of ferrous salts is higher than ferric salts.
Further, it is vital to understand that bioavailability is not the only criterion, as elemental iron content in various salts may vary considerably. For example, ferrous sulfate has 20% elemental iron, ferrous fumarate 33%, and ferrous gluconate just 12%.
Iron supplements are generally relatively safe, but they may cause gastrointestinal side effects like constipation.
Finally, a word of caution, one should never abuse iron supplements as there could be severe side effects like severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and even fainting.