By Laurie J Sutor, M.D., MBA, Vice President of Medical and Technical Services
Although we seem to talk about iron all the time, the blood center is NOT testing donors for iron levels. We actually test donors for the levels of hemoglobin or whether or not they are anemic (low level of red blood cells). So what does that have to do with iron? Iron is needed to make the hemoglobin in red blood cells. In many donors, especially young women, the most common cause of anemia is iron deficiency.
If you are turned away from donating because of low hemoglobin or anemia, we often assume it may be because of low iron levels. Your deferral is only temporary. What can you do to increase your iron levels so you can donate next time? A good diet is one way. Iron supplements are another way, although they often upset one’s stomach if taken alone. A vitamin with iron is a good compromise.
Foods rich in iron are meats and seafood, especially red meat and liver. Other foods with iron are less easy to absorb into the body, but are still good sources of iron. These include beans and lentils; chickpeas; pumpkin, sesame or squash seeds; tofu;.baked potato with the skin; broccoli; apricots; and nuts. Also many cereals, breads and bran are iron-fortified.
If you take an iron supplement or iron rich food, you can increase absorption into the body by taking it with vitamin C or meat. You decrease absorption by taking it with anything containing calcium (e.g. milk), antacids, red wine, coffee or tea. It takes at least 3 or 4 days for iron supplements to start working. Anemic persons may take weeks to months to see improvement from diet alone.
Anemia and possible iron deficiency in women past menopause or men may be a sign of an underlying medical condition. Men and older women with anemia should see their personal or family doctor for advice.