Iron deficiency can be a serious condition that can adversely affect your quality of life. Do you know how to recognize its symptoms? In this article, you’ll be able to find out if you are at risk for iron deficiency anemia, learn about its symptoms, and find out what you can do to prevent it.
Iron Deficiency: What You Need to Know
Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that allows them to carry oxygen around your body. Iron deficiency occurs when your body does not have enough iron to make sufficient hemoglobin. As a result, your tissues and muscles cannot get as much oxygen in order to work as efficiently. This leads to a condition called iron deficiency anemia, which causes symptoms that can negatively affect your quality of life…
Are You at Risk for Iron Deficiency Anemia?
Ask yourself: Do you fall into any of these higher-risk groups for iron deficiency?
- You are a woman who experiences heavy monthly periods
- You are a woman who is currently pregnant
- You have ulcers in your stomach
- You take over-the-counter pain medications frequently (aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, etc)
- You have had a gastric bypass surgery in the past
- You have had colon cancer or are known to experience intestinal bleeding
- You don’t eat meat or fish and follow a strict vegetarian diet
- You eat a very high-fiber diet
- You have been eating a very low-fat diet for a long time
- You donate blood frequently
6 Symptoms of Iron Deficiency You Should Know
Below are 6 common signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia. Be aware, however, that other health conditions can cause these symptoms as well. Therefore, if you find yourself experiencing most or all of these, I recommend making a note to mention this at your next doctor’s visit.
#1 Abnormal fatigue or weakness
Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of iron deficiency anemia. This is due to less oxygen reaching your body tissues, which forces your heart to work harder to circulate oxygen-rich blood around your body. This, in turn, causes you to feel tired more easily. However, it’s important to note that fatigue is a nonspecific symptom that can also be associated with many other conditions, including depression, chronic stress, vitamin deficiency, and obstructive sleep apnea.
#2 Strange new cravings to eat ice, clay, or dirt
While not the most common symptom on this list, this one deserves early mention as it is one of those signs that is so unusual that it should prompt you to consider taking action. Pica (the urge to eat non-food items) usually involves abnormal cravings to eat substances such as clay, dirt, chalk, paper, or ice. This often is a sign that your body is not getting enough of a particular vitamin or mineral and is seen in a proportion of people who have iron deficiency. If you are experiencing this (for example, if you suddenly have the urge to chew on ice even though you’ve never enjoyed it before), I encourage you to mention it to your doctor next time you see him or her.
#3 Frequent headaches or lightheadedness
Iron deficiency anemia often causes symptoms of headaches, particularly in women. They can be accompanied by a feeling of lightheadedness or dizziness. This occurs because low levels of hemoglobin in red blood cells mean that not as much oxygen is reaching the brain. Although there are many causes of headaches, frequent, recurrent headaches and dizziness should prompt you to talk to your doctor for further evaluation.
#4 Breathlessness with normal activity
If you find yourself out of breath doing normal, daily tasks that you used to find easy (such as walking or climbing stairs), this could be a sign of iron deficiency anemia. Since the iron used to make hemoglobin enables your red blood cells to carry oxygen around your body, when you are iron deficient, your muscles will also struggle to get enough oxygen during normal activities. In response, your breathing rate increases as your body tries to take in more oxygen to meet its need.
#5 Abnormally pale or yellowish skin
Look in the mirror and pull your lower eyelid down: is the inside layer a nice pink to red color, or does it seem extremely pale…even yellowish? In people who have severe iron deficiency or are anemic, the skin can lose its healthy color and warmth due to the lower levels of hemoglobin. This paleness can appear all over the body, or it may only be noticeable in areas like the gums, inside of your lips, and inside of your lower eyelids. This is especially true in people with darker skin tones.
#6 Restless legs
Restless leg syndrome is characterized by a strong urge to move your legs at rest. It can also be accompanied by unpleasant and strange crawling or itchy sensations in your feet and legs. It’s usually worse at night, meaning that you may find it difficult to sleep. While it can occur in otherwise healthy people, this symptom occurs more often in people who have iron deficiency anemia.
Iron Deficiency: What You Can Do
Eat iron-rich foods with vitamin C
If your doctor thinks your symptoms may be caused by iron deficiency from lack of iron in your diet, consider consuming more iron-rich foods, including:
- Meats, such as beef, pork, lamb, liver, and other organ meats
- Poultry, such as chicken, duck, turkey, (especially dark meat)
- Fish, such as shellfish, including clams, mussels, and oysters, sardines, anchovies
- Leafy greens of the cabbage family, such as broccoli, kale, turnip greens, and collards
- Legumes, such as lima beans and green peas; dry beans and peas, such as pinto beans, black-eyed peas, and canned baked beans
- Yeast-leavened whole-wheat bread and rolls
- Iron-enriched white bread, pasta, rice, and cereals
To maximize dietary iron absorption, enjoy them with vitamin C-rich foods, such as orange juice, citrus fruits, strawberries, broccoli, cauliflower, etc…
If you take iron supplements, take them correctly
You should only take an iron supplement if your physician specifically tells you to, as your doctor will usually want to confirm iron deficiency through tests or evaluations. If you do take an iron supplement, you can maximize iron absorption and effectiveness by drinking orange juice with it or taking a vitamin C supplement at the same time.
Other important considerations when taking iron supplements for iron deficiency:
- Milk, calcium, and antacids should NOT be taken at the same time as iron supplements, as these impair absorption. You should wait at least 2 hours after having these foods before taking your iron supplements.
- Avoid eating high-fiber foods (whole grains, raw vegetables, and bran) at the same time as your iron
- Avoid drinking anything with caffeine at the same time as your iron
- Iron is best absorbed on an empty stomach. However, iron supplements can cause stomach cramps, heartburn, nausea, constipation, or diarrhea in some people. You may need to take iron with a small amount of food to avoid these problems.
- If you take certain medications, your physician might instruct you to wait at least 2 hours between doses of iron supplements and those medications, as iron tablets can cause these drugs to not work as well. These include antibiotics (eg. tetracycline, penicillin, ciprofloxacin) and drugs used for hypothyroidism and seizures.
*You can find more essential health information like that found in “Iron Deficiency Symptoms: Do You Have These?” in Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, by Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH.