Iron is a crucial mineral that plays an active role in many body functions. And while your body just can’t do without this nutrient, its deficiency is also one of the most common nutritional problems in the world. Women especially need to be wary.
Iron is used to make hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. Your body also needs it for normal growth and development, proper cellular functioning, and the synthesis of certain hormones as well as connective tissues.
Low levels of iron can throw your body out of whack and hamper its proper functioning. What starts as iron depletion could progress to latent iron deficiency (also called iron-deficient erythropoiesis or iron deficiency without anemia) and then to iron deficiency anemia where your hemoglobin levels are affected. If you have iron deficiency anemia, your body makes fewer red blood cells and the red blood cells that are made contain less hemoglobin. This has a cascade effect on many vital functions in your body. Iron deficiency can occur without anemia, too.
Low levels of iron may not cause any symptoms initially. However, as the deficiency worsens, you may notice many of the following signs.
Early detection of iron depletion isn’t easy because of the lack of clear or distinct symptoms. But constant fatigue, irritability, and difficulty concentrating are often the first signs that your body’s iron levels are dropping.
It’s normal to feel tired if you’ve been exerting yourself physically, or are experiencing sleep deprivation, or prolonged stress. But what if fatigue and tiredness are a constant reality? When your iron levels drop, you’ll find that you’re really low on energy and that activities that did not cause you to feel tired earlier – be it climbing stairs or light housework – do so now.1 Constant fatigue is the most common sign that you’re low in iron or suffering from iron deficiency anemia. This happens because you don’t have enough healthy hemoglobin to carry sufficient oxygen throughout your body – what’s often called “tired blood.”2
2. Shortness Of Breath
An iron deficiency can also cause you to feel that you are constantly short of breath – like you are running out of air and cannot breathe deeply or fast enough. You may also feel that you urgently need to inhale before you finish exhaling.
Most people with this condition may not feel breathless while in a relaxed state or while sitting down. When you engage in physical activity or exert yourself, however, the increased amount of oxygen required by the body cannot be delivered by the blood. As a result, you may start to breathe deeply and rapidly in the attempt to increase oxygen supply.3 In severe cases, you may even feel short of breath while sitting down.
3. Heart Palpitations
People with iron deficiency anemia may also experience heart palpitations. In people with iron deficiency anemia, the heart is forced to work harder to supply oxygen to the body. This leads to it beating more rapidly or forcefully than is normal, causing you to actually sense heartbeats.4 Severe cases of iron deficiency anemia may also lead to an enlarged heart, a heart murmur, and even heart failure.5
4. Pale Skin
Poor appetite, slow development and growth, and irritability and behavioral problems can also point to iron deficiency anemia, particularly in babies and small children.6 7
Being pale or having a sallow or yellowish pallor is another sign of iron deficiency. This is not caused by a change in skin tone or pigmentation but rather due to a reduction in the number of red blood cells. If you have a dark complexion, the paleness may be more easily detectable in the inner mouth, nails, and lining of the eye.8
5. Headaches And Dizziness
Though not very common, headaches and dizziness can also point to an iron deficiency.9 The headaches can be mild, moderate, or severe and may be a result of compromised oxygen delivery to your organs, including the brain.
6. Auditory Problems
Some people with iron deficiency anemia hear a buzzing, ringing, or hissing sound inside their head. This is a condition known as tinnitus. Experts suggest that a decrease in the number of red blood cells can, in some cases, lead to a thinning of blood and cause it to circulate so quickly that it makes a sound.10
7. Strange Non-Food Cravings
While the connection is not exactly clear, people with iron deficiency anemia may experience a craving for non-food substances such as dirt, ice, paint, or paper, a condition that’s known as pica.11 You may also feel that your food tastes strange.
8. Skin Problems, Hair Loss, And Nail Abnormalities
Your skin, hair, and nails also take a beating when you have iron deficiency anemia. You may feel itchy and have brittle nails. Some people find that their nails curve inward like a spoon. You could also experience hair loss. So if you find more strands of hair falling than is than usual when you wash or brush your hair, you might be low on iron.12
9. Sore Tongue And Cracks In The Corners Of The Mouth
Is your tongue swollen or sore for no obvious reasons? It could point to an iron deficiency. Open sores or cracks in the corners of your mouth could also mean that you’re low on iron.13
10. Restless Legs Syndrome
Iron deficiency anemia may also be linked to an irresistible or overwhelming urge to move your legs, which is known as restless legs syndrome. You may also experience a creeping or crawling sensation in your thighs, calves, and feet. Experts suggest that this is caused by a problem in the nervous system.14 In fact, 15% of people with restless legs syndrome were found to have an iron deficiency in one clinical survey.15
11. Frequent Infections
Your immune system needs iron to function properly. So if you’re falling ill quite frequently, it might be time to check up on your iron levels.
12. Cold Hands And Feet
Iron deficiency anemia can also cause you to be more sensitive to cold. Your extremities (hands and feet) especially bear the brunt. When your body is anemic, it won’t have sufficient healthy red blood cells needed to supply oxygen to your body tissues. Your body uses the existing red blood cells to supply oxygen to vital organs and, consequently, circulation to your extremities takes a hit.
Some People Are At A Higher Risk Of Iron Deficiency
While a blood workup for anemia is a routine test many doctors recommend, that may not help to detect iron deficiency without anemia. If you suspect an iron deficiency, check your serum ferritin levels also.
- Women of childbearing age are more susceptible to iron deficiency since they experience blood loss during their monthly periods. 1 out of 5 women in this age group suffers from iron deficiency anemia.
- Pregnant women can become deficient in iron since they need much more iron than usual to meet the baby’s needs. Around 50% of women who are pregnant develop iron deficiency anemia.
- People who suffer from a medical condition that causes blood loss or interferes with iron absorption may not have enough iron despite a good diet.
Infants or small children are also prone to iron deficiency. This is because milk, their main food, is low in iron and too much milk can even block the absorption of iron from other foods.16 17
You Need 8–18 mg Of Iron Per Day Depending On Age And Gender
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron is:
- 8 mg for men between 19 and 50 years of age and 18 mg for women the same age group
- 8 mg for both men and women from the age of 51
- 27 mg during pregnancy
- 7 to 15 mg for children between the ages of 6 months and 18 years, depending on age and gender
However, if you are a vegetarian, you need 1.8 times the amounts given above because plant foods contain a form of iron called nonheme iron which is less easily used by your body than heme iron present in non-vegetarian foods.18
|↑1, ↑5||Iron-Deficiency Anemia. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑2||Fatigue. Merck Manual.|
|↑3||Shortness of Breath. Merck Manual.|
|↑4||Palpitations. Merck Manual.|
|↑6||Iron-Deficiency Anemia. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑7||Joo, Eun Young, Keun Young Kim, Dong Hyun Kim, Ji-Eun Lee, and Soon Ki Kim. “Iron deficiency anemia in infants and toddlers.” Blood research 51, no. 4 (2016): 268-273.|
|↑8||Paleness. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑9||Komaroff, Anthony L., ed. Harvard Medical School family health guide. Simon and Schuster, 2005.|
|↑10||Tinnitus. National Health Service.|
|↑11||Khan, Yasir, and Glenn Tisman. “Pica in iron deficiency: a case series.” Journal of medical case reports 4, no. 1 (2010): 86.|
|↑12||Nail abnormalities. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑13||Iron-Deficiency Anemia. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑14||Restless legs syndrome. National Health Service.|
|↑15||Causes of Restless Legs Syndrome. John Hopkins Medicine.|
|↑16||Iron-Deficiency Anemia. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑17||Iron deficiency anaemia. National Health Service.|
|↑18||Iron. National Institutes of Health.|