IRON DEFICIENCY

PART 2

Written by Dr Nické Theron, Pediatrician.

Iron deficiency anaemia occurs when the iron stores are so empty that there is not enough iron to make proper new red blood cells. The new red blood cells are thus fewer, smaller and paler and cannot carry oxygen effectively. Your body will always prioritize the available iron to first be used in the red blood cells, but iron has many other functions in the body (see previous post). So by the time that there is iron deficiency anaemia, the brain especially has already suffered from the lack of iron.

This is a sneaky disease because there are almost no symptoms initially. It is thus important that your doctor asks about the risk factors for developing iron deficiency during well-child-visits.

Babies and toddlers between the age of 6months to 3years have an especially high risk to develop iron deficiency anemia. The American Association of Pediatrics recommend that all children should be screened between 9-12 months of age because of the serious effects it has on long term neurodevelopment. Several studies show that the delays in development improves with treatment, but does not normalise completely.

The most common cause of iron deficiency is insufficient intake (see previous post for tips on prevention). Other causes could be blood loss from the gut, specific syndromes where iron is not absorbed from the gut or chronic inflammatory diseases.

Symptoms of Iron deficiency anaemia:

Mild:

  • No specific symptoms
  • Iron deficiency could lead to behavioural changes in your child that is sometimes difficult to pin-point eg. children become more wary, hesitant, solemn, unhappy, keep closer to their mothers.
  • Restless leg syndrome, breath holding spells, sleep disturbances, short attention span, learning difficulties have also been seen to improve when iron deficiency was treated.
  • Pica : an intense craving for weird non-food items such as clay, dirt, chalk, soap, paper, raw rice or ice (pagophagia). No one knows how this works, but it responds very well to iron supplementation.
  • Poor growth

Severe:

  • Pallor (seen especially around the eyes, in the mouth, the nails and on the palms/soles)
  • Severe tiredness and loss of interest in otherwise fun activities
  • Irritability
  • Poor appetite, sores in the corners of the mouth, painful tongue
  • Fast heartbeat, heart failure, fast breathing.
  • Other complications associated with iron deficiency anaemia: Febrile seizures (although no relational cause could be found, several studies have found that children with febrile seizures are more prone to be iron deficient). Iron deficiency also causes paralysis of some parts of the immune system.

If your doctor suspects iron deficiency anaemia blood tests will be the next step to confirm. A hemoglobin or full-blood count and ferritin count will be enough. Treatment with Iron supplements will be started and the effect on the red blood cells will be evaluated after one month of treatment. If there are no response further investigations should be done for other causes of the anemia.

Treatment of iron deficiency anaemia

Ferrous sulphate 3-6mg dly (can be given once a day or in divided dosages.
The best absorption of iron happens when you give it with orange juice (or other juice high in Vitamin C as this improves absorption) in between meals. Foods that can block absorption of iron are dairy, eggs, tea or coffee, whole-grain breads and cereals / bran.

Iron supplements are notorious for having many side effects. However if you start at a low dose and slowly increase it, and give the iron with meals most children tolerate it quite well. Remember to give the drops at the back of your child’s mouth or give it mixed in juice with a straw. Some iron supplements may stain the teeth, but this can be removed by brushing with baking soda (talk to your dentist first). There are many different iron formulations of which some are better absorbed/better tolerated, but this also comes with a significant price increase. In the end the most important thing is that your child drinks the supplement. (Studies show no difference in the end-result for different formulations).

VERY IMPORTANT: Treatment for iron deficiency anaemia should be given for at least 3months, even if the blood count normalises before that. Remember that the body will use any available iron for the red blood cells first, and then the stores still need to be filled to prevent future problems.

Dietary advice

It is important that your child’s diet is also adapted to include more iron rich foods. It is adviced that they should eat at least 2-3 iron rich meals per day. Remember that the iron in animal products is absorbed better and thus you need to eat bigger quantities of plant-based iron to absorb the same amount.

Some foods that are high in iron include:

  • Meat – red and white. Liver is especially high in iron.
  • Other animal sources: Eggs (especially the yolk), fish
  • Dried fruits: raisins, apricots
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Dried beans and lentils
  • Oats, other grains
  • Soybeans

I hope you now feel more confident in the whys and hows of iron deficiency. There are still so many ongoing studies and new developments with regards to the influence and treatment of different neurodevelopmental diseases such as autism and ADHD that I am sure this is a topic that we will still hear a lot about!

Resources

  1. Ozdemir N; “Iron deficiency anemia from diagnosis to treatment in children”; Turk Pediatri Ars; 2015 Mar; 50(1): 11-19
  2. http://www.uptodate.com
  3. https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/iron-supplement-oral-route-parenteral-route/description/drg-20070148

IRON DEFICIENCY

PART 1

Written by Dr Nické Theron, Pediatrician.

This is a topic that I have been avoiding for a while because there is so much conflicting advice and evidence available. I started giving our son iron supplementation from 6months but because it tasted horrible and stained all his clothes and he struggled with constipation, I stopped at around 10months. After attending the European Academy of Pediatrics congress in September I was reminded about how important iron is for brain development, and I felt very guilty that I did not give Eran enough iron-supplements. But was it really necessary? When should babies and toddlers use iron-supplements and what sort of iron should they use? Read on to learn with me:

Iron is a vital mineral in our bodies. It is used in red-blood cells to carry oxygen and to help manage the storage and usage of oxygen in the muscles. Iron also plays a very important role in brain development in babies and toddlers, regulating the structure as well as the hormonal messengers of the brain. The immune system also needs iron to function well. Luckily the body regulates iron very closely, and as red blood cells break down it is recycled and used again. We do however loose a small amount of iron daily from our skins and gut, and during menstruation. If we do not take in enough iron to counter-act these losses, it leads to iron deficiency.

Adults need to absorb about 5% of their daily iron needs from food. Children need to absorb up to 30% due to their rapid growth and development. This already places them at a high risk for iron deficiency.

“Iron deficiency” occurs when there is not enough iron in the “stores” of the liver. (Mostly measured by doing a “Ferritin level” on a blood test). If there is no treatment it will progress to “Iron deficiency anaemia” where the iron-levels in the red blood cells are also dropping, leading to fewer and smaller red blood cells. (Measured by testing the “Hemoglobin level” or a “Full Blood Count”). It is mostly only when a child becomes pale and tired that the problem is picked up. However there is already a big effect on brain-development, behaviour and growth long before the “Iron deficiency anaemia” causes symptoms. Sadly iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world, and the effect it has on children’s behaviour and development is scary.

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another”

Proverbs 27:17

Children who have a high risk of iron deficiency are:

  • Mother has an iron deficiency during pregnancy (the baby will still take the iron it needs, but there is not enough iron to totally fill all the stores)
  • Mother has hypertension or diabetes mellitus during pregnancy (the iron in the mother’s body is not as easily available for baby / the baby has a higher need for iron)
  • Premature babies (iron stores are filled during the last few months of pregnancy, so premature babies miss out on this. They also have a smaller blood volume and undergo many blood-tests while in NICU).
  • Low-birth-weight babies (multiple reasons for high risk)
  • Early cord clamping (allowing more blood to flow to the baby from the placenta increases the amount of iron they start out with)
  • Insufficient dietary intake during early infancy
  • Early introduction (<1 year) of unmodified cow’s milk or consuming large amounts of cow’s milk (>500ml) after 1year of age. (Early introduction may cause an increase of blood loss from the bowels as the bowels are not ready for the large proteins / via allergic reactions. Cow’s milk contains very little iron, thus the risk is high if your baby does not eat enough other iron-containing foods)
  • Exclusive breastfeeding for longer than 6months (breastmilk has a very low iron content. See below. It is important to start iron-rich supplemental food from 6months).
  • Picky-eaters, children with multiple food allergies, children following specific diets.
  • Obese children
  • Children with malnutrition, chronic diseases or bowel-diseases.

I would like to explain a little more about the iron-needs in babies. Term, healthy infants usually has enough iron in their bodies for the first 5-6months of life (they have a relatively high “hemoglobin” at birth and their stores are filled during the 3rd trimester). Their iron-needs are thus quite low during the first few months. Breastmilk contains very little iron (+- 0.3mg/L) but it is very easily absorbed (up to 50%). Formula milk is usually supplemented with up to 12mg/L iron, but it is not as available to be absorbed (4-6%).

After 6months of age the iron requirements increase rapidly, and thus breastmilk alone is not enough to sustain the iron-needs in babies. They need to take in extra iron in some form. Iron-rich foods and iron-fortified foods such as cereals has been shown to be more effective than medical supplements in the long term to sustain normal iron stores. (If your baby already has a deficiency it is easier to fill up the stores with medical supplements, see next article).

So how do you prevent iron-deficiency?

  • The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that all healthy term babies who are exclusively breastfed should receive supplemental iron (1mg/kg/day) routinely from the age of 4months until they eat sufficient quantities of iron-rich food. (At least 2 meals per day containing iron rich food or iron-fortified food). The European society feels that there is no need for general iron supplementation in healthy babies and children as long as there are no other risk factors.
  • Formula-fed babies should receive enough iron in the formula for the first 6months and thus do not need further supplementation.
  • All premature babies should receive iron supplementation from the age of 2weeks until 1year (2-4mg/kg/day).

You can give the supplements as part of a multivitamin (eg Vidaylin with iron) or separately (eg Ferro-drops or Ferrimed). Seeing that there are some risks involved in using iron supplements in otherwise healthy children (some studies show that babies with normal iron stores that were supplemented with iron did not grow as well in length as those that were not supplemented) I think it is very important to discuss this topic with your pediatrician at the 6week check-up to make an informed decision with them after looking at all the risk factors for YOUR baby.

Iron deficiency has serious implications in your child’s development and should be carefully managed and monitored. In the next article I will discuss the effects of iron deficiency anemia and the treatment thereof.

Resources:

  1. Lonnerdal B, Georgieff MK, Hernell O; “Developmental physiology of iron absorption, homeostasis and metabolism in the healthy term infant”; J Pediatr 2015 Oct; 167(4 0): S8-S14
  2. Baker RD, Greer FR, The Committee on Nutrition; “Diagnosis and Prevention of Iron Deficiency Anemia in Infants and Young Children (0-3years of age)”; American Academy of PediatricsClinical Report
  3. Friel J, Qasem W, Cai C; “Iron and the Breastfed infant”; Antioxidants (Basel). 2018 Apr; 7(4): 54
  4. ESPGHAN guidelines for Iron Requirements of Infants and Toddlers
  5. http://www.uptodate.com