Learn More About Low Iron

Thank you for coming to donate blood. It is caring individuals like you who help so many in our community. Before donating blood, all donors undergo a test to determine their hemoglobin which is an indicator of how many red blood cells you have. Donating blood also reduces iron stores in your body.

How does blood donation affect iron stored in my body?

Red blood cells are red because of the way iron is carried in hemoglobin, a protein that brings oxygen to the body. Therefore, the removal of red blood cells during blood donation also removes iron from your body. Iron is needed to make new red blood cells to replace those you lose from donation. To make new red blood cells, your body either uses iron already stored in your body or uses iron that is in the food you eat. Many women have only a small amount of iron stored in their body, which is not enough to replace the red blood cells lost from even a single donation. Men have more iron stored in their body. However, men who donate blood often (more than two times per year) may also have low iron stores.

Does the blood center test for low iron stores in my body?

No, the blood center tests your hemoglobin but not your iron stores. Hemoglobin is a very poor predictor of iron stores. You may have a normal amount of hemoglobin and be allowed to donate blood even though your body’s iron stores are low.

What causes anemia?

The most common cause of anemia is iron deficiency which may be caused by a diet low in iron, donating blood 3 or more times each year, or blood loss due to menstrual flow. Deficiency of vitamins may also cause anemia.

Anemia is associated with some chronic diseases such as diabetes, arthritis and kidney disease. Bleeding can also cause anemia. Stomach ulcers, diseases of the digestive tract and certain medications can all cause bleeding resulting in anemia.

How may low iron stores affect me?

There are several possible symptoms associated with low iron stores. These include fatigue, decreased exercise capacity, craving of unusual foods (ice, chalk), pale skin, rapid heartbeat, chest pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, irritability and headache. In addition, having low iron stores may increase the possibility of having a low hemoglobin test, preventing blood donation.

What can I do to maintain my iron stores?

Iron can be replaced by eating iron rich foods such as meat, eggs, dried beans, peas, iron-fortified cereals, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruits, nuts and seeds. Consuming citrus juice or foods rich in vitamin C along with iron can help your body absorb the iron more effectively. However, simply eating iron-rich foods may not replace all the iron lost from blood donation. Taking multivitamins with iron or iron supplements may help replace iron lost.

Why doesn’t a single big dose of iron replace what I lose during the donation?

Because people have a limit in iron absorption (i.e., 2-4 mg/day), taking iron in larger doses for a shorter period may not lead to better absorption (and may result in more side effects). The overall goal I to replace over 1-3 months, 200-250mg of iron lost during donation.