Anaemia is a condition in which the number of red blood cells is insufficient to meet physiologic needs; it is caused by many conditions, particularly iron deficiency. Traditionally, daily iron supplementation has been a standard practice for preventing and treating anaemia. However, its long-term use has been limited, as it has been associated with adverse side effects such as nausea, constipation, and teeth staining. Intermittent iron supplementation has been suggested as an effective and safer alternative to daily iron supplementation for preventing and reducing anaemia at the population level, especially in areas where this condition is highly prevalent.
To assess the effects of intermittent oral iron supplementation, alone or in combination with other nutrients, on anaemia and its associated impairments among menstruating women, compared with no intervention, a placebo, or daily supplementation.
In February 2018, we searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, nine other databases, and two trials registers. In March 2018, we also searched LILACS, IBECS and IMBIOMED. In addition, we examined reference lists, and contacted authors and known experts to identify additional studies.
Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and quasi-RCTs with either individual or cluster randomisation. Participants were menstruating women; that is, women beyond menarche and prior to menopause who were not pregnant or lactating and did not have a known condition that impeded the presence of menstrual periods. The intervention was the use of iron supplements intermittently (one, two or three times a week on non-consecutive days) compared with placebo, no intervention, or the same supplements provided on a daily basis.
Both review authors independently assessed the eligibility of studies against the inclusion criteria, extracted data from included studies, checked data entry for accuracy, assessed the risk of bias of the included studies, and rated the quality of the evidence using GRADE.
We included 25 studies involving 10,996 women. Study methods were not well described in many of the included studies and thus assessing risk of bias was difficult. The main limitations of the studies were lack of blinding and high attrition. Studies were mainly funded by international organisations, universities, and ministries of health within the countries. Approximately one third of the included studies did not provide a funding source.Although quality across studies was variable, the results consistently showed that intermittent iron supplementation (alone or with any other vitamins and minerals) compared with no intervention or a placebo, reduced the risk of having anaemia (risk ratio (RR) 0.65, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.49 to 0.87; 11 studies, 3135 participants; low-quality evidence), and improved the concentration of haemoglobin (mean difference (MD) 5.19 g/L, 95% CI 3.07 to 7.32; 15 studies, 2886 participants; moderate-quality evidence), and ferritin (MD 7.46 μg/L, 95% CI 5.02 to 9.90; 7 studies, 1067 participants; low-quality evidence). Intermittent regimens may also reduce the risk of having iron deficiency (RR 0.50, 95% CI 0.24 to 1.04; 3 studies, 624 participants; low-quality evidence), but evidence was inconclusive regarding iron deficiency anaemia (RR 0.07, 95% CI 0.00 to 1.16; 1 study, 97 participants; very low-quality evidence) and all-cause morbidity (RR 1.12, 95% CI 0.82 to 1.52; 1 study, 119 participants; very low-quality evidence). Women in the control group were less likely to have any adverse side effects than those receiving intermittent iron supplements (RR 1.98, 95% CI 0.31 to 12.72; 3 studies, 630 participants; moderate-quality evidence).In comparison with daily supplementation, results showed that intermittent supplementation (alone or with any other vitamins and minerals) produced similar effects to daily supplementation (alone or with any other vitamins and minerals) on anaemia (RR 1.09, 95% CI 0.93 to 1.29; 8 studies, 1749 participants; moderate-quality evidence). Intermittent supplementation may produce similar haemoglobin concentrations (MD 0.43 g/L, 95% CI -1.44 to 2.31; 10 studies, 2127 participants; low-quality evidence) but lower ferritin concentrations on average (MD -6.07 μg/L, 95% CI -10.66 to -1.48; 4 studies, 988 participants; low-quality evidence) compared to daily supplementation. Compared to daily regimens, intermittent regimens may also reduce the risk of having iron deficiency (RR 4.30, 95% CI 0.56 to 33.20; 1 study, 198 participants; very low-quality evidence). Women receiving iron supplements intermittently were less likely to have any adverse side effects than those receiving iron supplements daily (RR 0.41, 95% CI 0.21 to 0.82; 6 studies, 1166 participants; moderate-quality evidence). No studies reported on the effect of intermittent regimens versus daily regimens on iron deficiency anaemia and all-cause morbidity.Information on disease outcomes, adherence, economic productivity, and work performance was scarce, and evidence about the effects of intermittent supplementation on these outcomes unclear.Overall, whether the supplements were given once or twice weekly, for less or more than three months, contained less or more than 60 mg of elemental iron per week, or given to populations with different degrees of anaemia at baseline did not seem to affect the findings. Furthermore, the response did not differ in areas where malaria was frequent, although very few trials were conducted in these settings.