Iron Deficiency: World’s Most Common Nutritional Disorder

Iron Deficiency: World’s Most Common Nutritional Disorder

Written by Dr. M. Ling, 2 September 2013

Do you regularly experience any of the following?

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Poor concentration and memory
  • Poor sleep
  • Low, listless moods
  • Painful joints after exercise (even brief walks or climbing of stairs)
  • Increased tendency to catch colds or flus
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Dizziness or faintness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dry, dull, brittle hair
  • Flattened, thin, brittle, or spoon-shaped nails
  • Paleness (in skin, nails, eyes, lips, menstrual blood)

If so, check your iron levels.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 30% of the global population suffers anemia.  While iron deficiency can lead to anemia, they are not the same.  The difference is in severity of the above symptoms.  This makes iron deficiency – a pre-anemia condition – the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world.

Unless blood tests show a person has obvious anemia, those with iron deficiency fall through a major crack in the medical system.  Despite ONE in FOUR woman suffering iron deficiency symptoms, and sub-par iron levels causing anemia in up to 30% of seniors, as well as up to 25% of teenagers in the U.S. found to be pre-anemic, iron deficiency is NOT routinely tested during medical examinations.

There are three stages of iron deficiency: first, the body’s iron stores in the liver (serum ferritin) begin to drop.  Then, red blood cells decrease in size and richness of colour (microcytic).  Third, the level of iron currently used in the blood, known as hemoglobin, begins to drop.  If hemoglobin drops below normal range, then this is already considered anemia.

Thus, in terms of modern medical technology, hemoglobin is the last marker to show decreasing iron levels.  Common tests for iron only check hemoglobin.  However, if a serum ferritin test is conducted, iron deficiency can be diagnosed much earlier, before symptoms become far worse and more prolonged.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, a skilled doctor can also detect iron deficiency through palpating the pulse on the wrists.

Iron Sufficiency of Canadians


According to a Statistics Canada survey conducted 2009-2011, the average hemoglobin concentration among Canadians aged 3 to 79 was 142 g/L.  Concentrations were significantly higher among males than females.

Normal range level for hemoglobin is typically 130 – 180 g/L* (see NOTE below).  Measures below 130 g/L are already considered to be cases of anemia, which can be a result of iron deficiency, or other causes (such as vitamin B12 deficiency or excessive bleeding).

For both sexes, hemoglobin values tended to be relatively low among the youngest and oldest age groups, with the lowest average among children aged 3 to 5 (127 g/L).  The average concentration among males was highest at ages 20 to 49 (153 g/L).

For females above age 5, average concentrations were consistent across age groups (132 to 136 g/L).

Serum Ferritin

Survey results found that the average serum ferritin concentration among Canadians was 81 μg/L.

Concentrations were significantly higher among males than females.  Data was found as follows:

Females: ages 12 – 19           Females: ages 65 – 79
32 μg/L                                    89 μg/L

Males: ages 6 – 11                Males: ages 50 – 64
40 μg/L                                   166 μg/L

Normal levels of serum ferritin generally range from 14 – 180 μg/L* (see NOTE below).  Measures below 50 μg/L suggest iron deficiency, and by the time serum ferritin has dropped below 14 μg/L, very likely hemoglobin has also dropped to the lowest, if not below range.

Although the normal ranges for hemoglobin and serum ferritin are very broad, and Statistics Canada considers 96-97% of Canadians to have sufficient iron, the symptoms listed at the beginning of this article can begin to show when measures drop below 140 g/L and 50 μg/L, respectively.

From a TCM view supported through repeated similar findings across multiple clinical cases I observe in my clinic, these are strong markers for iron deficiency.  It needs to be corrected in order for a person’s total health to improve.

What to Do?

The simplest way to correct iron deficiency is through using food as medicine.  Iron-rich foods include green smoothies, dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, aragula, gailan, and seaweed as well as raisins, prunes, apricots, lean meats, and eggs.

In cases needing greater support, there are options to take synthetic pill-form iron, liquid iron, spirulina and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).  Compared with acupuncture, a common treatment method within TCM, taking Chinese herbs for iron deficiency is more effective than only receiving acupuncture.

Chinese medicine herbs provide an excellent natural plant-based source of iron.  Formulas proven over centuries have been used to strengthen and nourish blood to improve a person’s total vitality.  The advantage of Chinese herbs is that formulas are custom-tailored specifically to benefit a person’s constitution and specific health issues.

If you suspect yourself to have iron deficiency, visit your trusted health professional for a check-up.

* NOTE: Normal range levels for hemoglobin and serum ferritin used in this 2009-2011 Statistics Canada survey were not provided, and are thus based on the ranges used in common medical lab reports.  Some medical labs use a range of 120 – 150 g/L as normal range for hemoglobin.

Dr. Mee Lain Ling