Anemia screening

Iron & B12 deficiency anaemia - Symptoms, causes & supplements

30% of the world’s population are anaemic (also spelt anemic). The most common type is iron deficiency aneamia, meaning insufficient levels of iron. Iron enables red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body, so as a result iron deficiency aneamia, can leave you feeling tired, lethargic, and sometimes short of breath. There are other types of anaemia such as B12 deficiency aneamia.1 If you are lacking in iron, this means that your body cannot produce hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is found in red blood cells and is what gives blood its rich red colour and enables oxygen to be carried around the body.2

B12 deficiency anaemia

Another common type of anaemia happens when people are lacking in the B12 vitamin. In the general population, those that suffer with aneamia, it is said that 1% to 2% is due to having a lacking in B12. Interestingly, being deficient in B12 is more common in the older population, affecting around 1 in 10 people aged 75+ and 1 in 20 people aged between 65 and 74.4

Yes, it's not just lacking in iron that can result in aneamia, people can also suffer with vitamin B12 (also known as folate) deficiency anaemia. If you are lacking in B12, your body will produce unusually large red blood cells, because of their size they don’t function as they should.

Unsure if you are suffering with B12 or iron deficiency anaemia? Whilst we always recommend having a chat with a medical professional, read our article first as we will go through the symptoms, causes and how supplements may help, with both types of anaemia.3

Iron deficiency aneamia symptoms

Iron deficiency aneamia (also spelt anemia) often starts off very mild, with many of the symptoms going unnoticed. However, because the condition is progressive, levels of iron will continue to decrease. When this happens the aneamia will worsen, making the signs and symptoms become more noticeable.

Some of the most common symptoms are:5,6
  1. Extreme fatigue and tiredness
  2. Swelling or soreness of the tongue
  3. Cravings for substances with no nutritional value eg ice, dirt or starch
  4. Loss of appetite
  5. Feeling generally weak
  6. More frequent infections
  7. Dry damaged hair and skin
  8. Restless legs
  9. Feeling anxious
  10. Noticeably pale skin
  11. Pain in the chest area
  12. A faster heartbeat than usual
  13. Weak, brittle or spoon shaped nails
  14. Heart palpitations
  15. Shortness of breath
  16. Headache or feeling dizzy and lightheaded
  17. Cold feet and hands

It’s important to note that the symptoms listed above could also be a sign of another illness or condition, and not exclusive to aneamia.

Iron deficiency anaemia causes

There are many different causes of anaemia caused by iron deficiency which are explored below7:
  1. Loss of blood - your blood contains iron, therefore, if you lose blood you will lose iron. We’re not saying that every time you have a cut or graze, you are at risk of anaemia, we’re talking about losing large volumes of blood for example:
    • Heavy periods - women who have heavy periods and lose a substantial amount of blood during menstruation
    • Chronic blood loss- slow and chronic blood loss from conditions such as a hernia, ulcer, or colorectal cancer
    • Gastrointestinal bleeding - as the name suggests this happens in your digestive tract, and blood can appear in stool or vomit8
  2. Low volumes of iron in your diet - your body can absorb iron from foods, therefore, if your diet lacks iron, your body can become deficient over a period of time. Unsure if you get enough iron in your diet? Check out our article all about foods high in iron.
  3. Not being able to absorb iron - when iron is absorbed by your body, it goes into your bloodstream in your small intestine. If you have a disorder with your intestine, this could affect the intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients from food that is digested by the body. Over time this can lead to iron deficiency.
  4. Pregnancy - during pregnancy, women are recommended iron supplements, to help support the mothers iron needs but also the needs of the growing fetus

Iron supplements for aneamia

Most often, iron supplements are given to people who are suffering from this form of anaemia. Your GP will keep an eye on your iron levels over a few months until they have returned to normal. To provide the best treatment, they will also need to find out what triggered your anaemia in the first place. If any of your current medication was causing anaemia, your doctor may swap it for an alternative.

Many anaemic people may find that increasing iron intake in their diet may also improve symptoms. It seems Popeye had the right idea as dark-green leafy vegetables, like spinach and curly kale are good sources of iron. Nuts, seeds, brown rice, meat, eggs, and fish are also rich in iron.

B12 aneamia symptoms

There are many different causes of anaemia caused by a deficiency in B12, these are explored below:9 10
  1. Changes to your mood and behaviour
  2. Irritability
  3. General weakness
  4. Fatigue and tiredness
  5. Depression
  6. Struggling with mental abilities such as memory, understanding and judgement
  7. Pale or yellow tinge to your skin (jaundice)
  8. Tongue appears red or sore
  9. Mouth ulcers
  10. High temperature
  11. Constant pins and needles
  12. Difficulties with vision
  13. Changes to how you move or wal

B12 anaemia causes

There are many different causes of anaemia caused by B12 deficiency which are explored below:11
  1. Pernicious anaemia - also known as Biermer’s disease, this is where your own immune system attacks the healthy cells in your stomach. When the cells are attacked it affects their ability to absorb B12 from the foods that you eat.
  2. Lack of B12 in your diet - you absorb B12 from certain foods, therefore, if your diet lacks B12, your body can become deficient over a period of time. A vegan diet typically lacks B12, so it is always wise to take supplements. Also, at risk are those who follow fad diets or have a generally poor diet for a prolonged period of time.
  3. Medicines - there are some medicines that can affect how much B12 your body absorbs such as anticonvulsants and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs).

B12 (folate) supplements for aneamia

In most cases, levels of vitamin B12 and folate are topped up with injections. This is usually a lifelong treatment needing to be done on a regular basis. As an alternative, B12 tablets may also be prescribed to be taken between meals. To replace missing folate, folic acid tablets normally need to be taken for four months.

Some people with this form of anaemia might find that a few additions to their weekly shop may improve their symptoms. Fish, eggs, dairy products, and yeast extract like Marmite are good sources of Vitamin B12 whilst piling your plate with peas and broccoli will help boost folate levels.

Talk to your GP/doctor about aneamia

We hope you are now clearer about the two common types of aneamia, how they differ and how supplements can help.

Next step should be talking with your GP/doctor if you are concerned and think you may be suffering with aneamia, whether that's down to a lack of iron or B12.

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Last updated: 19 November 2020

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Anaemia