Iron deficiency is an extremely widespread health problem that affects many tens of millions of people. It is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world and if left untreated, it can lead to a range of serious health issues, including anemia. Iron is important because it provides the body with the energy it needs to go about daily life. It is important that you understand what iron is, what it does and how to recognize the warning signs that indicate a deficiency.
Why is iron so important?
Iron is a mineral found in every cell in the human body. It supplies us with the means to perform a number of important functions, including the transportation of oxygen within the blood. As part of the protein hemoglobin, it carries oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body, a process that provides energy for your daily tasks. If you have insufficient iron in your body, you are likely to feel tired and weak, and your immune system to waver, so you will be more prone to illness.
It is vital that we keep our levels of iron within healthy limits. Some people may require supplements if their diet is not providing the iron they need. However, it should be noted that too much iron can result in health problems too. For this reason, you should always consult your doctor before taking supplements.
What are the signs of iron deficiency?
There are a number of symptoms of iron deficiency and they can all exist in varying degrees of severity. In some people, symptoms can be minor or vague, while in others they can have a big impact on their health. Iron deficiency can be treated and if you think you are suffering from a number of these symptoms - then you should consult your doctor.
1. Fatigue & exhaustion
Fatigue and general feelings of exhaustion are the most common indicators of iron deficiency. If your body does not have enough iron, it will not be able to transport oxygen to the areas that need it to function. This results in low energy levels that will make you feel tired and physically weak. You may find that you struggle to concentrate on even simple tasks.
2. Pale skin
Iron supports the production of hemoglobin, which helps oxygenate your blood and provides it with its familiar red coloring, which in turn gives our skin its 'warm glow'. If you notice that your skin looks paler than it used to be, then it may be a sign of iron deficiency. This is more noticeable if you have a naturally pale complexion, but whatever your skin tone, there are steps you can take to check for symptoms. If the inside of your gums, lips and the area underneath the skin of your lower eyelids are less red than usual, low iron levels could be to blame.
3. Frequent headaches
As a lack of iron results in less oxygen being transferred to the far reaches of your body, your brain may not receive the levels it needs to complete its complex tasks. This can result in headaches and migraines. People who have an iron deficiency are much more prone to headaches than those who have sufficient amounts of iron in their body, so if you suffer frequently, it could be an indication of low iron levels.
4. A swollen or sore tongue
Your skin is not the only part of your body that can show signs of iron deficiency. If you are suffering from low iron, your tongue can lack color and may swell. It can also take an oddly smooth texture and may feel more tender and sensitive than it usually would. Look out for signs of inflammation and discoloring as iron supports red blood cell production which in turns helps your muscles function. Your tongue is a muscle you can actually examine for yourself, so it can provide you with useful clues about your body's iron levels.
5. Shortness of breath
If you notice that even fairly mundane tasks leave you unusually short of breath then it could be a sign that you have low iron levels. Tasks like climbing the stairs and walking uphill should not cause huge problems if you are at a reasonable level of fitness, but when you are lacking in iron the oxygen levels are low no matter how deeply you breathe in the air from outside your body.
6. Brittle or grooved nails
Your nails can be indicators of various health problems and iron deficiency is one of them. If you have frail nails that are prone to breaking, splitting or cracking then it could be a sign of low iron levels. Ridges, banding and depressions in the nails are also indicators that you need to get checked out by a Doctor.
7. An appetite for non-edible items
This is an odd one, but people who suffer from low iron levels can also develop strange cravings for items you would not typically want to eat, such as paper, hair, dirt or chalk. This condition is called 'pica' and can occur in people who have lower nutrient levels than are healthy. If you develop these symptoms, then it's worth having your blood tested to see if your levels of iron are satisfactory.
8. Unexplained hair loss
Iron deficiency can cause you to lose more hair than usual, particularly if your levels of iron are severely low. If your body does not have enough oxygen to operate properly, it will channel the oxygen it does have to support vital functions and neglect less important matters, such as hair retention. Most scalps lose about 100 hairs a day on average, so there is no reason to panic if you see a few hairs in your plug hole or on your towel. However, noticeably significant hair loss is worth checking out, especially if accompanied by other symptoms.
9. A pounding heart
If you have an iron deficiency and your body cannot transport enough oxygen around your body, your heart may try and compensate by beating harder to try and pump more blood to vital areas. This symptom is only likely to be noticeable in severe cases of iron deficiency (typically those leading to anemia) but if you think your heart is racing at an unusual pace, you may want to consult a doctor about your iron levels.
10. Feelings of anxiety
Iron deficiency can fool your body into feeling more anxious than it usually would. A lack of oxygen speeds up your nervous system, which can affect your emotions. You may well feel more restless than usual, and have inexplicable feelings of 'doom' and foreboding. If you are feeling like this then low levels of iron could provide you with an explanation.
11. Heavy periods
Although an iron deficiency can affect anybody, women are more likely to develop problems than men. Iron is found in blood, so heavy blood loss can lead to a deficiency. People who have too much iron are actually encouraged to donate blood more often in order to expel iron from their body. However, women who suffer from heavy periods are more prone to low iron levels as they will be losing a lot during menstruation. If you suffer from heavy periods and notice other symptoms, you could be struggling with an iron deficiency.
12. An underactive thyroid
Iron deficiency can slow thyroid function and block the body's means of boosting its metabolism. The thyroid contributes to numerous functions within the body (learn more here) and if yours is underactive you may notice weight gain, variations in your body's temperature and feelings of sluggishness. Thyroid problems can be caused by an iron deficiency so it might well be worth taking a blood test.
What You Should Do If You Think You Have An Iron Deficiency
The symptoms listed here are key indicators of potential iron deficiency but you should not self-diagnose and should never start taking supplements without first consulting your doctor. These symptoms are signs of a potential problem, but only a blood test will confirm if your problems are caused by low iron levels.
Iron and Your Diet
Iron is present in a number of natural products and is particularly prevalent in various forms of fresh fish, beans and grains. It is important to understand that different people require different levels of iron intake. See our guide to the best sources of natural iron for more information.
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