Let’s talk iron!
The Importance of Iron in Our Blood
Before you donate, LifeStream takes a small, finger-stick blood sample to measure the amount of red blood cells in your blood. Iron is an important component in hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. Hemoglobin gives blood its rich, red color, too.
If your red blood cell level (we call that “hematocrit”) meets FDA minimums, you are allowed to donate.
However, it is possible to have a normal number of red cells and still be iron-deficient.
When we give blood, we give red blood cells, and iron is needed to make new red cells. To do so, your body either uses iron already stored in your body or iron in the food you eat. Women typically have lower iron stores than men; however, men who donate blood regularly also are subject to low iron stores.
What is iron and why is it important?
Iron is a nutrient your body requires to make the hemoglobin contained within your red blood cells. Without adequate iron, it is difficult for your body to make enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to where it’s needed. Your body also uses iron for growth and to support pregnancy.
What does iron deficiency mean?
Iron deficiency is when your body contains lower-than-normal amounts of iron. This may be caused by: (1) not getting enough iron into the body (due to dietary or other problems), (2) bleeding (including the “controlled bleeding” associated with regular blood donations), or a combination of both the above. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency and the leading cause of anemia (i.e., low hemoglobin levels) in the United States. Signs of low iron levels can include fatigue, difficulty concentrating, reduced exercise capacity, or a desire to chew ice, clay or other substances. Others have few if any symptoms.
Are blood donors potentially at risk for iron deficiency?
Yes. Blood donation does contribute to iron loss. You lose about 250 mg of iron when you donate whole blood; 450 mg for a double-red cell donation. (Iron loss is far less for platelet donations). While for many donors this effect is relatively small, for others – especially women under 50, frequent donors, and teenage donors of both sexes – the blood donation process can contribute to iron deficiency.
Is iron deficiency from blood donation harmful?
This is a really important question! The answer: There is no evidence that blood donation-related iron deficiency is harmful to donors. However, we still want our donors to be educated about iron deficiency, because we believe that avoiding it is best for everyone.
I am a frequent blood donor. What can I do to maintain a normal iron level?
Eating a well-balanced diet, complete with iron-rich foods, is a smart way to support your body’s iron needs. But iron is not absorbed very efficiently, even after eating iron-rich foods like red meats. Also, consumption of coffee, tea, red wine and daily products can make iron absorption even more difficult. If an iron-rich diet doesn’t do the trick, LifeStream recommends that female donors under 50 years of age, teenage donors of both sexes, and frequent blood donors of both sexes of all ages consult their healthcare provider about taking a multivitamin or an iron supplement by mouth to replace iron lost during blood donation. With your physician’s approval, LifeStream recommends taking 18mg of elemental iron every day for 60 days to replace iron lost during donation. When taking iron supplements, please note that “slow and steady” is best. Taking larger does for a shorter time will not help – and could result in unwanted side effects.
I couldn’t donate blood because of “low hematocrit.” What does that mean, and can I ever donate again?”
Your health and ability to donate blood safely are important to us. We want to make certain our donors have enough red blood cells for both themselves and the patients they wish to help. It can be discouraging for willing blood donors to be deferred from blood donation. If you have been deferred for low hematocrit, please keep in mind that this generally is not a permanent condition. We encourage you, when the time is right as outlined by LifeStream staff, to try to donate again. Don’t give up!
I tried to donate in the past and was told that I have “low iron.” What does that mean?
Medical terms can be confusing, and sometimes, blood donor centers will tell a donor that they have “low iron” when they really mean that the donor has a low “hematocrit” (or number of red blood cells). Most blood centers do not actually measure a donor’s iron level, but they may tell a donor they have “low iron” because that is easier to understand.
What does hematocrit tell us about a person’s iron stores?
For many people, the development of iron deficiency will lead directly to low hematocrit values – what often is called “iron-deficiency anemia.” This is not always the case, however. For instance, many iron-deficient individuals will maintain what appear to be perfectly normal hematocrit levels. While we realize this can be confusing, we’re sharing this information with you to make it clear that we cannot be certain – based only upon results from the screening test – whether or not a particular donor has normal body iron stores. This is why we take additional steps to ensure the blood collection process is safe for our donors.