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Do you think you have iron deficiency symptoms? Learn to identify the symptoms, and what to do about it if you are deficient in this vital element.
Iron Deficiency Symptoms
Iron is needed for the formation of hemoglobin in red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen to deliver it to the tissues throughout your body. If your iron levels are low, then your body may be having trouble properly oxygenating your tissues, and you may have impaired mood, cognitive function, and physical work capacity. Symptoms of an iron deficiency can be widespread and can include the following:
- Hair loss
- Pale skin color
- Restless leg syndrome
- Pica (craving to eat dirt, sand, or clay)
- Brittle nails
Causes of Iron Deficiency
The most common deficiency in the world, iron deficiency can be caused by a variety of factors. Chronic blood loss can deplete your body of iron, as hemoglobin in the blood contains iron. Excessive menstrual bleeding, internal bleeding (such as in the gastrointestinal tract from an ulcer), and other excessive blood loss can all cause a deficiency. Conditions that cause malabsorption of nutrients can also impact iron levels, as can inflammatory syndromes. Pregnant women, menstruating women, and athletes are all at high risk of developing iron deficiency. One of the major causes, however, is simple: inadequate intake in the diet.
Determining the cause of your iron deficiency symptoms is very important, so consult your doctor if you think you have them. The symptoms of iron deficiency and anemia (decreased number of red blood cells or hemoglobin in the blood) can be very similar. However, anemia is not always caused by iron deficiency; your symptoms could be due to a more serious complication, and if so, increasing your iron intake won’t help. A blood test can determine if your iron levels are low. Make sure to get your ferritin levels as well as your overall hemoglobin levels checked.
Boosting Your Iron Intake
If you are, in fact, iron deficient, there are many ways to increase your iron intake, primarily through dietary changes. In the diet, there are two forms of iron, heme iron and non-heme iron.
Heme iron is primarily found in meat, poultry, fish, and seafood, and it is much more readily absorbed by the body than non-heme iron. Non-heme iron is found in foods like whole grains, eggs, beans, peas, and lentils.
It is important to consider your diet as a whole. Certain foods can either enhance or interfere with your body’s ability to absorb iron. Follow these tips for maximizing your iron absorption.
- Increase your consumption of red meat. At least one to two servings of meat, poultry, or fish a day is recommended.
- If you are vegetarian, increase these iron-rich foods: whole grains, beans, peas, and lentils. You should eat at least four servings of these foods a day, as the iron in them is not absorbed as easily as the iron found in meat products.
- Enhance your iron absorption with vitamin C. Vitamin C helps improve iron absorption immensely, so eat more fruits, vegetables, or fruit juices high in this vitamin.[1,3]
- Avoid factors that may inhibit iron absorption. Calcium, fiber, phytic acid (found in foods like wheat bran and nuts), polyphenols, coffee, and alcohol are all believed to interfere with iron absorption. Don’t eat these foods when you are eating high-iron foods.[3,4]
- Choose the timing of foods carefully. Include enhancers of iron absorption with meals and keep potential inhibitors between meals. This means that drinking a glass of orange juice with breakfast (high in vitamin C) is a good idea, while drinking coffee or milk (high in calcium) with your breakfast is not.
- Cook in cast iron pots. This strategy does not require specific dietary changes, only the use of a different piece of cookware. Cooking with cast iron is a very efficient way to increase your iron intake and blood iron levels.[5,6]
The Role of Iron Supplements
Good nutrition and adequate dietary intake of iron should be the first line of intervention; iron supplements can cause side effects like nausea, stomach pain, constipation and diarrhea. But in some cases they can be extremely helpful at relieving symptoms. Especially if you have iron-deficiency anemia, you may be advised to take a supplement. But don’t take an iron supplement without first checking with your doctor—as mentioned before, anemia can be caused by more serious factors than iron deficiency.
Share Your Experience with Iron Deficiency
Please share your tips for dealing with iron deficiency symptoms in the comments section below. Do you have any favorite iron-boosting recipes? Do you take an iron supplement?
For related reading, visit these posts:
- Iron Deficiency Treatment for Chronic Fatigue Symptoms
- Iron Deficient But Not Anemic: A Simple Solution for Fatigue
This article was originally published in 2014. It is regularly updated.