Iron deficiency anemia, which is characterized by a low red blood cell count due to a lack of adequate iron in the blood, is the most common blood disorder and nutritional deficiency worldwide. It affects more than 3 million Americans, 3.5 to 5.3 percent of which are men and postmenopausal women.
Gastrointestinal blood loss is the most common cause of iron deficiency anemia in men, and the risk of developing a deficiency increases with age. Although symptoms can vary, some of the most common are weakness, shortness of breath, cold hands and feet, dizziness and headache. If you suspect you have iron deficiency anemia, contact your health care provider for a blood test.
When iron deficiency anemia occurs in a man, it's usually a result of some kind of blood loss in the gastrointestinal system. Older men are at a higher risk of developing a deficiency than younger men. If you think you have an iron deficiency or resulting iron deficiency anemia, check with your doctor.
What Is Iron Deficiency?
Iron deficiency develops when there is not enough iron in the blood. It's the leading cause of anemia in the world and the most common nutritional deficiency. You can be deficient in iron without being anemic, but the longer the deficiency is left untreated, the greater your chance of developing anemia gets.
The causes of iron deficiency fall into two major categories. Either you are not eating and absorbing enough iron, or you have an increased need for iron. Typically, an increased need for iron occurs as a result of rapid growth or blood loss. In men, iron deficiency anemia most commonly develops as a result of blood loss from some type of gastrointestinal issue.
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What Is Iron Deficiency Anemia?
If you have iron deficiency for an extended period of time, eventually it can progress to a more serious condition called iron deficiency anemia. All of your red blood cells contain hemoglobin, an iron-rich protein that's responsible for carrying oxygen from your lungs to all of the other cells in your body.
When you don't have enough iron in your body, you can't make the hemoglobin that's necessary to create healthy red blood cells. The number of red blood cells you have drops and many of those you do have are small and unhealthy. As a result, your cells can't get enough oxygen. When oxygen is lacking for a period of time, uncomfortable symptoms may start to develop.
Symptoms of Iron Deficiency Anemia
Many men with mild to moderate forms of iron deficiency anemia do not experience any symptoms. However, if the deficiency progresses and gets more severe, uncomfortable symptoms may start. The most common symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include:
- Fatigue (most common symptom)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Cold hands and feet
- Restless leg syndrome
- Brittle nails
- Pale skin
- Cracks in the corner of the mouth
- Irregular heartbeat (sign of severe deficiency)
Iron Deficiency in Men
According to the Merck Manuals, gastrointestinal blood loss is the main cause of iron deficiency anemia in men. There are several different reasons why you might be losing blood in the digestive tract. The most common are:
- Anal fissures
- Inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis)
- Angiodysplasia (the breakdown of blood vessels)
- Esophagitis (inflammation of the esophagus)
- Mallory-Weiss syndrome
Iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia may also develop as a result of too little iron in the diet or poor absorption. Vegan and vegetarian men are at the highest risk of deficiency due to inadequate dietary intake because the iron in animal foods is more easily absorbed than that in plant foods.
Treatment for Iron Deficiency
Treatment for iron deficiency in men depends on the underlying cause, but generally includes a combination of therapies, including:
- Iron supplements
- Iron therapy (intravenous iron)
- Blood transfusions
- Surgery to stop bleeding
- Increased intake of iron-rich foods
- Increased intake of vitamin C-rich foods
- Reduced intake of black tea
Your health care provider will work with you to determine what's causing the iron deficiency anemia and then design a care plan that both corrects any underlying causes and increases your intake and absorption of the mineral.
Foods That Contain Iron
If you have iron deficiency or iron deficiency anemia because of uncontrolled blood loss, increasing your intake of iron-rich foods won't be enough to correct the problem. You'll need to see a doctor to get the blood loss under control first. Then, once the bleeding is controlled, you can increase your dietary intake of iron to recommended levels, which is 8 milligrams per day for adult men.
If your iron deficiency developed as a result of low dietary intake, you may be able to correct the problem by including more iron-rich foods in your daily diet. Examples of iron-rich foods include:
- Organ meats (especially liver)
- Leafy greens (kale, turnip greens, collard greens)
- Peas (black-eyed peas)
- Pinto beans
Other Ways to Increase Iron
In addition to increasing your intake of iron-rich foods, it's a good idea to increase your intake of foods that are rich in vitamin C, as well. Vitamin C not only increases the absorption of iron in your gut, it also helps you efficiently metabolize and use the iron that you do absorb.
Rich dietary sources of vitamin C include:
- Bell peppers (red and green)
- Brussels sprouts
You may want to avoid drinking tea with iron-rich meals, too. According to the University of California Berkeley, drinking tea with a meal can decrease iron absorption by as much as 50 percent. That's because compounds in the tea, called tannins, bind to the iron and make it less available to the body. Coffee can also decrease iron absorption, but not as significantly as tea.
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Iron-Deficiency Anemia"
- American Society of Hematology: "Iron-Deficiency Anemia"
- Merck Manuals: "Iron Deficiency Anemia"
- American Society of Hematology: "Anemia"
- MedlinePlus: "Iron Deficiency Anemia"
- Internal Medicine: "A Prospective Evaluation of Adult Men With Iron-Deficiency Anemia in Korea"
- Iron Disorders Institute: "Iron Deficiency Anemia"
- Free Radical Biology and Medicine: "The Active Role of Vitamin C in Mammalian Iron Metabolism: Much More Than Just Enhanced Iron Absorption"
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Vitamin C"
- University of California Berkeley Wellness: "Can Drinking Tea Contribute to an Iron Deficiency?"
- Gastroenterology and Hepatology: "Management of Iron Deficiency Anemia"
- PLOS One: "The Prevalence of Anemia and Moderate-Severe Anemia in the US Population"
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements: "Iron"
- Blood: "A Prospective Evaluation of Adult Men With Iron Deficiency Anemia"