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Anaemia

Updated 10 May 2019

Your iron deficiency, or mild anaemia, could have a surprising benefit

We’ve only ever heard of the dark side of iron deficiency and the severe health problems it can cause if left untreated. But could this condition have any positive effects?

It has long been known that an iron deficiency affects your immune system and puts your body under severe strain. However, according to the Washington Post, being iron deficient or having mild anaemia could actually turn out to be beneficial by offering protection from infections such as malaria and tuberculosis. Moreover, it could even help combat chronic diseases like cancer. 

Iron deficiency and anaemia

Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anaemia, especially among pregnant women and people who are malnourished. It affects as many as one in two healthy South African women. While anaemia can certainly be caused by iron deficiency, the two aren't always linked.

Treatments for mild iron deficiency anaemia range from dietary changes and supplements, medicines, and surgery, but if left untreated, it can have a strong impact on one’s quality of life and even have life-threatening consequences. 

Anaemia and malaria 

Can an iron deficiency, and consequent anaemia, really protect us from infections? Ryan Zarychanski, a University of Manitoba physician and scientist whose research interests include the helpful aspects of iron deficiency and anaemia, told the Washington Post that this is indeed possible.

“With rare exception, bacteria need iron to grow,” Zarychanski explained to the publication, adding: “If you take away the iron, the bacteria can’t multiply, which means your body can more easily overcome illness, especially infection.”

This is backed by evidence of a trial conducted in 2003 that revealed that iron supplementation for preschool children in Zanzibar, a malaria-endemic area, might actually be harmful. UNICEF notes that around 600 million preschool and school-age children are anaemic, with an estimated half of these attributable to iron deficiency. 

The trial, published in The Lancet, was eventually stopped due to the children developing a high risk of severe malaria after given iron supplements. Another 2013 study found that children in Pakistan who were given iron supplementation were likely to develop diarrhoea and respiratory problems. 

The risks of iron overload 

We’re often told to consume iron-rich foods that fight iron deficiency. But studies have shown that the opposite problem, i.e. iron overload, could potentially damage internal organs and increase the risk of diabetes, heart attack and cancer.

Iron overload is usually caused by a genetic defect and can lead to organ failure if left untreated. People with this disorder have an increased liver cancer risk, while reducing their iron stores decreases their cancer risk. The latter results were obtained from a 2008 clinical trial that assessed the risks among healthy people with peripheral arterial disease.

The authors of an article published in the Blood Journal also looked at iron overload effects on the immune system and found that iron excess can have adverse effects on a variety of cells, tissue, and organ functions and can cause increased susceptibility to infection. 

However, if you've been diagnosed with iron deficiency anaemia and you’re thinking of doing away with your iron-rich foods and supplements, think again. Despite the above studies’ findings, there is mounting evidence that iron supplementation boosts haemoglobin and is necessary for treating this type of anaemia. Zarychanski also stresses that "while iron deficiency and mild anaemia may sometimes be good, there's a fine line between benefits and costs, and that line is still being measured." 

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