Treating iron de­fi­cien­cy with tablets or infusions?


These days, iron deficiency is quick­ly diagnosed. But treatment isn't always required, and an infusion isn't always the immediate answer. How to navigate your way.

Our body needs iron

There’s no doubt about it: iron performs important functions in the body. It is required for all metabolic processes, oxygen transport and blood formation. And, according to recent findings, it plays an important role in the exchange of information between nerve cells.

When do we speak of an iron deficiency?

There are no universally accepted thresh­old figures for normal iron levels in the blood. However, the protein ferritin provides a clue. This indicates how much iron the body has in store. If the ferritin level is below 15 nanograms per millilitre of blood (ng/ml), the store is exhausted. But take note: for a reliable diagnosis, the CRP protein level should also be measured. This can rule out the possibility of acute inflammations and infections, as these increase ferritin.

Iron deficiency is the most common micronutrient deficiency in adults in industrialised countries.
Albina et al., Swiss Medical Weekly

Menstruation as a cause of iron deficiency

Doctors distinguish between two stages of deficiency, depending on the severity: latent iron deficiency without anaemia and iron deficiency with anaemia. Re­peat­ed blood loss such as during men­stru­a­tion is one of the most com­mon causes of iron de­fi­cien­cy. Studies from Europe and the US show that 15-20% of all women of menstrual age have iron deficiency without anaemia. About 3% suffer from iron deficiency anaemia.

Symptoms of iron deficiency

  • muscle weakness
  • low stamina
  • lack of concentration, poor memory
  • headaches
  • mood swings
  • brittle nails, hair loss, dry skin, torn corners of the mouth
  • appetite for clay and soil
Studies from Europe and the US show that 15% to 20% of all women of menstrual age have iron deficiency without anaemia.

When to seek therapy?

As a general rule: if you suffer from anaemia, you should seek treatment. This means that the concentration of haemoglobin in the blood is too low. According to the WHO, the norm is at least 12 grams per decilitre of blood for women and at least 13 grams for men. If someone has iron deficiency but not anaemia, treatment only makes sense if they have symptoms. This is because low iron levels don't necessarily lead to health complaints. However, there are exceptions: studies have shown that tired women of menstrual age can benefit from treatment, even in the case of iron deficiency without anaemia. However, this is only with a ferritin level clearly below 15 ng/ml.

Iron infusion as the second choice

Doctors from the Medix group practice recommend that tablets should always be prescribed first. It is more tolerable for the body to distribute the iron intake in several small portions over a longer period of time. This contrasts with the infusions often prescribed today where­by it is not uncommon to fill the body’s entire deficit in one or two sessions. How­ev­er, iron can be toxic in high doses and can even lead to an allergic re­ac­tion. Only in cases of intolerance or an insufficient ferritin increase is an iron infusion advisable – but only in moderate doses.

No self-treatment

Also important: never carry out a treat­ment on your own, but always follow medical supervision. The symptoms of iron de­fi­cien­cy are unspecific, and there may be another cause for it. This is why a laboratory diagnosis is necessary. In addition, you should have your blood re-examined after several weeks. This is the only way to find out whether your iron stores have been replenished.

Which foods contain iron?

A person's daily iron requirement can be met through their food. The following foods contain particularly high amounts of iron:

  • red meat and liver
  • pulses like lentils and soya beans
  • nuts and seeds like pistachios and sunflower seeds
  • vegetables and herbs like watercress, parsley, onions

Vegetarians and vegans especially need to make sure they are getting enough iron and vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 and iron can easily be combined as supplements.

Foods that improve iron absorption

Ascorbic acid (vitamin C), fermented foods such as sauerkraut and organic acids (citrus fruits, fruit juices) all improve iron absorption. Nonetheless: an iron deficiency with symptoms cannot be remedied through food alone. Supplements are usually required.


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