You probably already know that iron and maintaining a healthy iron level is important, but do you know why?
Iron is a mineral that allows the body to perform a number of vital functions: most notably, iron, along with hemoglobin and myoglobin, helps deliver oxygen throughout the body and helps the muscles store oxygen (6). Staying within a safe range is important as having too little (or too much) iron is unhealthy and may hinder your body’s ability to perform these functions as well.
Iron Deficiency and Anemia
Having healthy iron levels is important; if you do not get enough iron, you may develop anemia, a common blood disorder in which your body either does not have enough red blood cells, or your red blood cells do not function properly (such as not delivering enough oxygen throughout your body) (3). Anemia can cause someone to feel tired or weak; it may also cause shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, or an irregular heartbeat (9).
While anemia can be caused by a number of sources, iron-deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia (3). This type of anemia occurs when your body does not have enough iron.
How Does Iron Affect my Ability to Donate?
While donating blood saves countless lives, donating also removes iron from your body. This is why it’s important that we test our donors prior to donating in order to ensure that they have a healthy enough level of red blood cells in order to donate safely. The test we perform prior to all donations is called a hematocrit test; this test measures how much of a person’s blood is made up of red blood cells (13).
There are certain groups of people that naturally have a higher risk of iron deficiency. Young donors (male and female donors between the ages of 16-24) are among the highest risk for iron deficiency (1).
Other at-risk donors include:
- premenopausal females
- · high-frequency donors:
- males who donate three or more times in 12 months
- females who donate two or more times in 12 months
- donors who test near the minimum requirement on the hematocrit test
How Often Should At-Risk Donors Donate?
In order to maintain healthy iron levels, we suggest that donors between the ages of 16-17 donate up to two times a year and donors between the ages of 18-24 donate up to three times a year.
The frequency that other at-risk donors may donate depends on the donor. When you come in to donate, you will speak with a member of our collections staff who will be happy to go over your eligibility at that time.
Maintaining a Healthy Iron Level
Understanding the different types of iron can help you maintain a healthy iron level. While iron is found in many different foods, not all iron is the same. Heme iron is found only in meat, poultry, and fish, and is two to three times more absorbable than non-heme iron. Non-heme iron is found in plant-based and iron-fortified foods (5).
While vegetarian or vegan diets lack heme iron, healthy iron levels can still be achieved and maintained through carefully planning meals to include iron-rich foods, as well as foods that enhance iron absorption (5).
Non-heme Iron-rich Foods (edited from AABB FAQs):
- Beans (kidney, lima, navy)
- Whole wheat bread
- Peanut butter
- Brown rice
Enhancers of Iron Absorption:
You can enhance the absorption of non-heme iron foods by consuming them along with foods that are rich with vitamin C (7). Fruits and vegetables such as red and green peppers, oranges, kiwifruit, broccoli, strawberries, and brussels sprouts are all packed with vitamin C.
Inhibitors of Iron Absorption:
Certain foods, such as bran, tea, and dairy products act as inhibitors of iron absorption (6). You may wish to avoid these foods when eating meals including iron-rich foods while attempting to increase iron levels.
Iron supplements may be a good way to achieve and maintain healthy iron levels (especially for high-frequency donors); however, iron supplements may be harmful to some individuals. Taking too much iron through supplements can also lead to organ damage. You should check with your doctor before you begin taking iron supplements, especially if you have a personal or family history of hereditary hemochromatosis, familial polyposis, or colorectal cancer (1).
You should also speak with your doctor or pharmacist to learn how your iron levels may be affected as a result of taking other medications (1).
What Happens if I Have Too Much Iron?
Just as having too little iron is harmful, so is having too much. Having too much iron can be indicative of medical problems such as hemochromatosis.
Hemochromatosis is a disorder where the body can build up too much iron; over time, these unhealthy levels can damage tissues and organs if left untreated.
According to the CDC (the Center for Disease Control and Prevention), regularly scheduled blood removal is the most effective way to lower the amount of iron for patients with hemochromatosis. This is called therapeutic withdrawal and this is a service that Blood Bank of Alaska offers. A prescription from a medical provider is required for therapeutic withdrawals. Please contact us for more information.
1. AABB Bulletin #17-02 on Limiting or Preventing Iron Deficiency
2. AABB “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Iron and Blood Donation – For Donors and Parents”: https://www.aabb.org/tm/Documents/Iron-and-Blood-Donation-FAQs-for-Donors-and-Parents.pdf
3. American Society of Hematology (ASH) “Anemia: https://www.hematology.org/Patients/Anemia/
4. CDC “Hemochromatosis”: https://www.cdc.gov/features/hereditary-hemochromatosis/index.html
5. CDC “Iron”: https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/InfantandToddlerNutrition/vitamins-minerals/iron.html
6. CDC “Recommendations to Prevent and Control Iron Deficiency in the United States: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00051880.htm
7. FDA “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020”: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/20152020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf
8. Hemochromatosis.org “Overview”: https://www.hemochromatosis.org/#overview
9. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) “Anemia”: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/anemia
10. NIH “Iron and Blood Donation”: https://clinicalcenter.nih.gov/blooddonor/iron.html
11. NIH “Iron Fact Sheet for Health Professionals”: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/
12. NIH “Vitamin C for Health Professionals”: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-HealthProfessional/#h3
13. U.S. National Library of Medicine “Hematocrit”: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003646.htm