Windhoek - Iron deficiency is one of the most prevalent nutrient deficiencies that globally affect an estimated two billion people, as revealed by the World Health Organisation.
Of the estimated figure, young children, and pregnant and postpartum women are the most vulnerable because of the high iron demands of pregnancy and infant growth.
Iron is a mineral that serves several essential roles in a human body, the main one being to carry oxygen throughout the body and making red blood cell. In the absence of iron or insufficient iron, the body will have an iron deficiency, a condition that causes tiredness, shortness of breath, heart failure as well as chest pains.
A Windhoek-based dietitian told The Southern Times that iron deficiency can result in pale skin, irregular heartbeat, headache, dizziness and light-headedness.
“When your body lacks iron, it means there is a low level of haemoglobin in the red blood cells. This means that there will not be enough oxygen to reach the brain, as a result causing the blood vessels in the brain to swell causing headaches and dizziness,” said the dietitian, who preferred anonymity.
He said the swollen blood vessels in the brain could also cause pressure that may result in one feeling dizzy.
In some cases, insufficient iron can result in cold hands and feet, inflammation or soreness of the tongue and brittle nails. When insufficient oxygen reaches the hands and feet, they become cold and may appear pale.
However, some people generally have gold feet and hands without iron deficiency.
Iron deficiency is among the causes of brittle nails and often comes with other iron deficiency symptoms such as pale skin, fatigue or headaches.
Nails can also be brittle due to several other causes and among them poor diet, exposure to chemicals and frequently submerging the hands in water.
According to a Zimbabwean medical practitioner, Dr Aaron Marufu, lack of iron in the body compromises the normal functioning of the heart.
“Iron constitutes the make-up of the haemoglobin (a protein found in the red cells), which is responsible for transporting oxygen to the various parts of the body.
“When the body is having insufficient iron, it means there is insufficient oxygen circulating in the blood thereby increasing general oxygen demand by the body.
“As a result, the heart may pump faster than the normal rate to compensate for this lack of oxygen. When the heart decompensates, heart failure results,” said Marufu.
Iron is also critical in the supply of oxygen to the body muscles. In the event that insufficient oxygen is transported to the muscle, one may experience fatigue or easily get tired, Marufu explained.
He said pregnant mothers are prone to iron deficiency due to the demand of the iron in the growth or development of the unborn child.
Children are also more exposed to iron deficiency compared to adults because of their body’s absorptive systems. A child’s adaptive system is not as developed as an adult’s, as a result, it may fail to absorb sufficient iron for the body.
“Women go on the menstrual cycle and when they do, they lose a lot of blood and thus they become more prone to iron deficiency compared to men,” said Marufu.
Iron is required in all tissues of the body for basic cellular functions and is critically important in muscles, the brain and red blood cells.
Anaemia is simple to measure and has been used as the hallmark of iron deficiency severe enough to affect tissue functions.
However, iron deficiency is not the sole cause of anaemia in most populations. Even in an individual, anaemia may be caused by multiple factors.
Eating foods that have a naturally high content of iron can prevent iron deficiency.
Foods that have high iron level include green vegetables such as spinach, silverbeet and broccoli. Green beans, lentils nuts, whole wheat, brown rice, fortified breakfast cereals, dried fruits grains and seeds also have a high level of iron.
Information from dietitians in Namibia and Zimbabwe shows that iron deficiency should not be self-diagnosed and that it is essential to see a doctor when iron deficiency signs and symptoms show.
The health experts have highlighted that for one to take iron supplements on his or her own can be risky because overloading the body with iron may damage the liver among other complications.
According to WHO statistics, about one-fifth of perinatal mortality and one-tenth of maternal mortality in developing countries is attributable to iron deficiency
The statistics further show that in total 0.8 million (1.5%) of deaths worldwide are attributable to iron deficiency.