One in three people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) has iron deficient anemia. This common, but often underrecognized and undertreated extra-intestinal manifestation impacts so many of us. You may wonder why. The reason is three-fold.
First being that long-term irritation and inflammation in our intestines can interfere with our body’s ability to use and absorb vitamins and minerals properly. When our intestines don’t absorb enough iron, folate, B12 and other nutrients, our bodies are unable to create more red blood cells. Those with IBD are also at risk for blood loss—both visible and microscopic and we often don’t eat as much iron-rich foods. So, what can we do to boost our reserves and increase our energy? How as patients can we better advocate for ourselves to stay on top of screenings? This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s an in-depth look at anemia in both adult and pediatric patients and input from Dr. Alka Goyal, who recently co-authored a major study on pediatric anemia.
Symptoms to watch out for
As someone who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in July 2005, I experienced anemia long before my diagnosis. I often wonder if my anemia was a warning sign of the larger issue, my IBD. In fourth grade, I fainted on the teacher’s desk while waiting for her to look at an assignment. Throughout my life I’ve experienced light-headedness, weakness, black outs, and extreme fatigue. My symptoms were never addressed prior to finding out I had Crohn’s. A simple lab test would have shown all along. When I was diagnosed with IBD and hospitalized my hemoglobin was a 7. To give you an idea, people are given blood transfusions once they drop to 7 (or below). Throughout my 18 years with IBD, my hemoglobin was rarely ever in “double digits”—and I took over the counter iron supplements for years.
Once I had my bowel resection surgery in 2015, my iron panel slowly started to improve. It takes time. Last month, I had my “highest” hemoglobin since diagnosis, ever—12.9 (which really isn’t that high, but I’ll take it!). It’s difficult to put the fatigue caused by anemia into words, but you can physically tell such a difference when your iron panel is where it needs to be.
When you have anemia, you have less blood carrying oxygen throughout your body. The most common symptom is feeling tired or lethargic. Other symptoms include dizziness, headaches, feeling cold, pale skin, being irritable, and shortness of breath. Not everyone experiences symptoms, so it’s important as a patient to speak with your GI about making sure that when you get labs, an iron panel is part of the workup.
Screening for Anemia
Anemia screening is driven by patient symptoms and/or a care provider’s recognition of lab abnormalities. It’s important to note that anemia is not *just* a low hemoglobin, all the lab figures matter. With iron deficiency anemia (IDA), red blood cells are smaller and paler in color. Your hematocrit, hemoglobin, and ferritin go hand in hand. Ferritin helps store iron in your body. Iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia and is caused by a lack of iron-rich foods, malabsorption, and blood loss.
Other types of anemia include vitamin deficiency anemia and anemia of chronic disease. Vitamin deficiency anemia is a result of poor absorption of folic acid and vitamin B12. My GI has me on daily folic acid. Luckily my B12 has never been an issue, but it’s worth a discussion with your care team. If you’re deficient, you can receive B12 injections. Diseases such as IBD and other inflammatory diseases can interfere with the production of red blood cells. When this happens anemia can often only be resolved once remission is reached or inflammation calms down.
In order to address the need for improved patient management, the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation created the Anemia Care Pathway (ACP) to standardize clinical management of anemia in IBD. This pathway helps to identify high-risk patients so that timely intervention and care can be provided. The hope is that this pathway will improve patient outcomes and our quality of life. Patients are assessed based on the severity of their anemia and iron stores to determine the type of iron therapy (intra-venous or oral) that is best suited.
The importance of accurately diagnosing the type of anemia you have
According to the PubMed study, Management of Anemia in Patient with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, despite iron deficiency anemia impacting one third of IBD patients, “more than a third of anemic ulcerative colitis patients are not tested for IDA, and a quarter are not treated with iron replacement therapy.” While oral iron tablets are effective for treating mild IDA, it’s not for everybody. The study also notes, “it is important to recognize that ferritin is elevated in chronic inflammatory states and among patients with active IBD, ferritin levels less than 100 are considered to be diagnostic of iron deficiency.” Iron infusions have a solid safety profile and can be used to help boost your iron stores and prevent future iron deficiency.
While treatment goals are well-defined, selecting a treatment is often not as straightforward. The PubMed study previously mentioned recommends that all IBD patients with IDA should be considered for oral supplement therapy, whereas someone with clinically active IBD, or someone who is not tolerant of oral iron, with hemoglobin levels below 10 g/dl be given IV infusions therapy. While oral iron is safe and affordable, some people experience GI issues from oral iron, it can also increase inflammation and contribute to flares in patients who are not in remission.
A study published in August 2022, entitled, “Ironing It All Out: A Comprehensive Review of Iron Deficiency Anemia in Inflammatory Bowel Disease” claims approximately 45% of patients with IBD are anemic—which is a more than what’s been reported (33%) for years.
“Though intravenous (IV) iron is substantially underused, it’s considered first-line treatment for patients with active disease, severe anemia, oral iron intolerance, and erythropoietin (a hormone secreted by the kidneys that increases the rate of production of red blood cells in response to falling levels of oxygen in the tissues.)
Anemia in pediatric IBD patients
The most common cause of anemia in children with IBD is iron deficiency. It results from chronic blood loss, poor absorption, and less intake of foods that are rich in iron due to poor appetite, food selection or intolerance. According to the World Health Organization’s definition of anemia, prevalence in the pediatric IBD population ranges from 44% to 74% at diagnosis and 25% to 58% at 1 year follow-up.
Anemia can be both a biomarker of disease activity and a subtle or debilitating extraintestinal manifestation. According to, Anemia in Children With Inflammatory Bowel Disease: A Positi… : Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition (lww.com), “newly diagnosed children with IBD are more likely to have IDA in contrast to anemia of chronic disease. No significant improvement in the hemoglobin was observed when patients were assessed after 13 weeks of induction therapy with conventional drugs that included nutritional therapy, azathioprine, steroids, and 5-ASAs. Despite the recognition of anemia, fewer than half of anemic patients received indicated iron therapy.”
Dr. Alka Goyal, MD, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, and Interim Associate Chief of Clinical Affairs at Stanford University of Medicine, co-authored this study on pediatrics and tells me the key message is that anemia is the most common extraintestinal manifestation in patients with IBD.
“More than 2/3rd of children with IBD are anemic at the time of diagnosis. The treatment of IBD alone does not resolve anemia, which can be associated with a variety of symptoms. Persistent anemia indicates a more aggressive disease course,” said Dr. Goyal.
Hemoglobin levels across genders and race
According to the study, hemoglobin levels are similar in preteen boys and girls; however, after menstruation, the cutoff hemoglobin in girls is lower than in boys and is even lower in pregnant versus nonpregnant women. The African American population tends to have lower hemoglobin concentration compared with Caucasians.
“Although the normal range of hemoglobin varies with age, gender, and race, a hemoglobin level below 10 g/dL is considered to be consistent with moderate anemia and below 8 g/dL as severe anemia, whereas in young children below the age of 5 years and pregnant women, a hemoglobin level below 7 g/dL is deemed as severe anemia.”
Dr. Goyal says it’s important to monitor anemia regularly in all patients with IBD.
“Anemia can be an early indicator of active disease or an impending flare of IBD. When the body has inflammation, the iron stored in the body cannot be metabolized to help manufacture more hemoglobin and additionally there is suppression of normal blood production, resulting in anemia of chronic disease.”
Other causes include vitamin deficiency, medication side effects, or breakdown of red blood cells due to other inherited or disease-related complications.
“Patients should be monitored not just by symptoms, but also by blood tests like complete blood count, Ferritin, and markers of inflammation like CRP every 3 months when they have active inflammation and every 6 months when patients are in remission,” Dr. Goyal explains.
Bringing a dietitian on board to help
Registered dieticians who specialize in IBD can advise patients and families about foods that contain iron naturally. The iron in meats is more readily absorbed than that present in a plant-based diet.
Dr. Goyal says another important concept is food pairing.
“With food pairing, iron-rich foods like spinach, kale, and Swiss chard are ingested with citrus fruits, melons, or vegetables like bell pepper, broccoli, beans, carrots, tomato, etc. Avoid simultaneous ingestion of foods rich in dietary fiber, soy, cereals, coffee, tea, and animal protein like milk, and eggs. Children should consume at least three servings of iron-rich foods like fortified cereals, red meat, tofu, etc. The recommended daily intake of iron in healthy children is 7-11 mg daily,” says Dr. Goyal.
Treating anemia in the younger IBD population
When it comes to treating anemia, Dr. Goyal has helpful tips. She says it’s important to recognize and treat anemia along with the treatment of IBD and vice versa.
- Oral iron can be tried in mild anemia when the hemoglobin is above 10 gm/dl, preferably given with juice or citrus fruits.
- Avoid taking oral iron multiple times a day or in high doses.
- Brush your child’s teeth after taking liquid iron.
- If your child experiences side effects including abdominal pain, nausea, or constipation, and/or has no significant improvement with oral iron, it is safe to give intravenous iron.
- Timely treatment may save a blood transfusion. excessive unabsorbed iron is not healthy for our digestive system, so avoid overdosing on oral iron.
Patients with persistent anemia lasting for three or more years were noted to have a higher prevalence of more severe and complicated disease (stricturing and penetrating phenotype) with a greater need for surgical intervention.
Whether you’re an adult patient or a caregiver to a child or young adult with IBD, be mindful of the importance of keeping tabs on whether anemia is creeping in and hindering you or someone you loves quality of life. Have the conversation with your GI and make sure you are being vigilant and proactive about doing all you can to prevent, manage, and treat anemia.