Woman who habitually ate matchstick diagnosed with severe deficiency

Doctor advises what to eat to help an iron deficiency

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Iron deficiency continues to be a concern for health bodies around the globe as it paves the way for significant problems when poorly managed. The nutrient is critical for the production of haemoglobin, a red protein responsible for the transport of oxygen in the blood. As the body struggles to deliver oxygen to cells, it is left feeling tired and short of breath. Other manifestations have been observed where individuals start eating foreign objects. According to several studies, this phenomenon is a major manifestation of iron deficiency.

In 2012, the journal of Medical case reports states that pica seems to be strongly associated with iron deficiency anaemia, but that the mechanisms underpinning this relationship remain unknown.

Science Direct explains: “Pica is an uncommon disorder […] that could go unnoticed in the psychiatric examination with inspection and patients usually tend to hide it.”

The compulsive condition sees individuals inclined to eat non-nutritive substances, such as paper, soap, paint or chalk.

In 2020, Science Direct presented the case of a 29-year-old female patient who presented to emergency services after suffering two days of abdominal pain and constipation.

“The patient’s complaint was a habit of eating four to five packs of matchstick a day for 3.5 to four years,” the report stated.

“At night, when her husband and son were asleep […], she threw the flammable ends of the matches and bit the rest in small pieces, soaked it up and kept turning it around in her mouth before swallowing.

“She says that she felt an incredibly strong desire to do this behaviour and felt happy at every stage of it and she was not disgusted.”

The patient had some levels of awareness that pica may be the cause of her symptoms but did not seek psychiatric treatment.

While some types of pica do not require treatment, serious complications can occur as a result of ingesting foreign objects.

What’s more, because pica causes no obvious changes in appearance, it can easily be overlooked due to the patient’s tendency to hide and their nature with attacks.

In iron deficiency, the condition is likely driven by a lack of iron in some areas of the brain.

Some other forms of pica, like the consumption of earth, are more culturally driven and are considered a common type of pica.

How common is iron deficiency?

Unfortunately, iron deficiency remains one of the most prevalent deficiencies around the world, with an estimated two billion people affected.

The symptoms of the condition range from extreme fatigue and pale skin, to headaches and lightheadedness.

Failure to address these symptoms early can lead to life-threatening complications like anaemia.

Fortunately, there are ways to prevent the condition from becoming problematic.

The condition can be caused by several factors, such as diet, blood loss, and inadequate absorption of iron from the intestines.

In most cases, eating a well-balanced diet emphasising iron-rich foods will help prevent a deficiency.

Taking supplements could also offer some protection, but consulting a doctor prior first is advised.

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