The mineral iron plays an important role in oxygen transport and helps regulate cell growth and division. According to the Office of Dietary Supplements, approximately two-thirds of the iron in the body is found in red blood cells. Iron deficiency occurs when the body does not contain enough iron to properly carry out proper body functions.
Causes of Iron Deficiency
According to MayoClinic.com, blood loss is the most common cause of iron deficiency in the United States and Western Europe. Blood loss may occur as a result of heavy menstrual periods, trauma or chronic gastrointestinal bleeding. Other causes of iron deficiency include a lack of iron in the diet or an inability to absorb iron due to a digestive disease, such as Crohn's disease or celiac disease.
Red blood cells transport oxygen to the body tissues and remove the waste product carbon dioxide. The center of a red blood cell is made up of an iron-rich protein called hemoglobin. As blood moves through the lungs, oxygen molecules attach to the iron component of the hemoglobin. When the blood leaves the lungs, it releases the oxygen to all the tissues and cells and removes any carbon dioxide. According to the Franklin Institute, one drop of blood contains one million red blood cells. Red blood cells die quickly, and new red blood cells are produced in their place. If there is not enough iron in the body to create the hemoglobin needed for red blood cells, the new red blood cells will be unhealthy and unable to properly pick up and deliver oxygen.
When red blood cells are unhealthy and cannot bind oxygen adequately, the tissues and cells become starved of oxygen. As a result, the heart begins to pump harder to send out more red blood cells in an effort to make up for the missing oxygen in the tissues. This excess pressure and stress on the heart can result in abnormal heartbeats and heart palpitations. No matter how hard the heart pumps, however, without healthy red blood cells, the tissues will still be lacking oxygen.
In addition to heart palpitations, iron deficiency causes a variety of other symptoms. One of the most common symptoms is fatigue, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain, coldness in the hands and feet, paleness in the nail beds, gums and skin, brittle fingernails, swelling of the tongue and increased frequency of infections. Some people with iron deficiency may also develop an enlarged spleen.
Treatment for iron deficiency focuses on correcting the iron deficit and restoring iron levels in the body. Mild iron deficiency can be successfully treated with the use of oral iron supplements as well as increased intake of iron in the diet. For severe cases of iron deficiency or deficiency caused by blood loss, blood transfusions may be needed. Consult your doctor if you have heart palpitations or suspect you are deficient in iron.