Can Low Iron Levels Kill You?

Close-up of a cluster of small clam shells on the beach.
Clams are an iron-rich food that can help you avoid low iron levels. (Image: Design Pics/Bill Brennan/Design Pics/Getty Images)

Iron is a mineral that plays various important roles in the body, most notably the production of hemoglobin -- the molecule in your blood that delivers oxygen. Iron deficiency is a common occurrence that can result in a condition known as anemia. According to the World Health Organization, the true toll of iron deficiency anemia is hidden in the overall death rates in developing countries.

A Silent Killer

The WHO notes that iron deficiency is in fact an epidemic that affects more people than any other health condition. Because the symptoms of iron deficiency can be more subtle than some other other nutritional deficiencies, it is not often credited as a direct cause of death. However, worldwide it is a major cause of ill health, premature death and lost earnings. Poor and developing countries are most affected by iron deficiency.

Iron Deficiency Symptoms

While low levels of iron can negatively affect the body, most physical symptoms do not show up until more severe iron deficiency anemia occurs. Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include weakness and tiredness, decreased cognitive performance, compromised immune function, brittle nails and hair, headaches, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, feeling cold, pale or yellow skin, and pounding in the ears.

High-Risk Groups

Those at the highest risk for iron deficiency include premenopausal women; women who have recently given birth or are breast-feeding; those with peptic ulcer disease; vegans and vegetarians; children who drink more than 2 to 3 cups of cow's milk per day, as cow's milk can decrease iron absorption; individuals with celiac disease, ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease; and anyone who has undergone major surgery or physical trauma.

Avoiding Iron Deficiency

While low iron levels are not a common cause of death in developed countries, if left untreated, severe iron deficiency anemia can potentially be fatal. To avoid low iron levels, consume iron-rich foods including clams, white beans, soybeans, organ meats, oysters, fortified cereals, blackstrap molasses, spinach, lentils, beef and kidney beans. In addition, consuming foods high in vitamin C at the same time you consume iron-rich foods can help improve the absorption of iron. Foods high in vitamin C include guava, bell peppers, grapefruit juice, orange juice, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, broccoli and kiwi.

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