7 Signs of an Iron Deficiency and How to Get Enough
You may not think that constant fatigue or weakness could possibly be from an iron deficiency, but those are common symptoms.
Iron comes from specific things you eat, and if you aren’t consuming enough of those iron-enriched foods, you could be missing out on a key part of your diet.
Iron-deficiency anemia develops for a number of reasons: 1) You lose more blood and iron than your body can replace, 2) your body is not able to absorb iron very well, 3) you’re not eating enough dietary sources of iron or 4) your body needs more iron than normal. Biological sex, lifestyles, underlying health conditions and life stages can also make people more prone to iron deficiency. Read on to learn how much iron you should be getting, the side effects of iron deficiency and how to get more iron in your diet.
Are you getting enough iron?
It’s important to know how much iron you should be getting. Amounts vary between men and women. According to the Cleveland Clinic, men need 8 mg of iron per day and women need 18 mg of iron per day. Older women above the age of 50 only need 8 mg of iron, those who are pregnant need 27 mg and those who are lactating need 9 mg per day.
Luckily, you can get iron from a wide range of foods. According to the Mayo Clinic, these can include:
- Red meat, poultry and pork
- Beans and peas
- Dark leafy vegetables, such as spinach
- Raisins, apricots and other dried fruit
- Iron-fortified starch like pasta, bread and cereal
Certain types of people can also be at risk for iron deficiency. If you menstruate, you may lose iron because of the blood loss. Infants and children may be iron deficient if they do not get enough breast milk or formula. Children and infants may also need extra iron during periods of growth spurts. If you donate blood frequently, you may need extra iron. Vegetarians and vegans may also be prone to anemia if they don’t seek out alternate sources of iron other than meat.
Potential side effects to watch out for
You may be wondering: How do I know if I have iron deficiency? There are several main iron deficiency symptoms to be on the lookout for. Some of them seem like everyday ailments, like headaches, or side effects can trend into the truly bizarre, like eating clay.
Extreme fatigue or weakness
A common way to tell if you are deficient in iron is extreme levels of fatigue or weakness. This is because without enough iron your body does not produce red blood cells properly.
Your bloodstream becomes less efficient at carrying oxygen. Without oxygen being carried where it needs to go, you end up feeling very weak and tired.
Tying into the point above, another issue can be chest pain, fast heartbeat and shortness of breath. This can also result from oxygen not being carried by the bloodstream to where it needs to go as efficiently.
Headache, dizziness and lightheadedness
Even the brain can receive less oxygen if the body is running low on iron. That can cause a number of cognitive impairments, like headache, dizziness and lightheadedness. Iron deficiency anemia is even associated with migraines.
Cold hands and feet
If your body isn’t getting enough oxygen, you end up feeling cold. Because iron deficiency affects how the bloodstream is transferring oxygen around your body, you can end up with cold hands and feet.
Cravings for non-nutritional objects
If things get really bad, you might start finding yourself craving items that have no nutritional value and can’t be digested. This condition is referred to as pica. People with pica may eat things like ice, soil, clay and paper. Pica is associated with iron deficiency, but no one quite knows how the two are related. Iron therapy does tend to cure pica behavior.
At the other end of the spectrum, you may find yourself not feeling hungry at all. The reasons for this are also unclear. Some theories suggest it may be related to certain hormone and blood protein levels.
Your skin could also become pale or look washed out. A lack of iron can lead to fewer red blood cells, which can in turn lead to pale skin.
What is the major cause of iron deficiency?
There are a few reasons you may be iron deficient, according to Mayo Clinic. The most direct cause is simply not getting enough iron in your diet. Blood loss through heavy, long and frequent menstruation, injury, illness, cancer, gastrointestinal bleeding or blood donation might also be a culprit. Even nosebleeds can cause iron deficiency. Pregnant people can also be at risk for iron deficiency, since more iron is needed for increased blood volume and the fetus. Certain gastrointestinal disorders can also impede the ability to absorb iron from the food you eat.
Cleveland Clinic also lists rare causes like certain stomach infections, gastrointestinal surgeries and genetic conditions.
How to add more iron to your diet
If you suspect that you’re not getting enough iron, you may want to get a blood test with your doctor to see if you have anemia. If you do, you can try adding more iron to your diet by:
- Cooking food in cast iron skillets to increase the amount of iron in your foods
- Collecting recipes that feature iron-rich foods
- Snacking on nuts and seeds during the day
- Eating whole grains
- Pairing specific vitamin-rich foods with iron-rich foods to help you absorb more iron, such as foods high in vitamin C, vitamin A and beta-carotene
- Choosing iron-enriched cereal or bread
- Making an iron-rich salad full of plant sources of iron, like spinach, peas, lentils, white mushrooms or black olives
Sometimes it can be hard to fit iron-rich foods into our diets, due to issues like food budget constraints or hectic lifestyles. You may want to look into using an oral iron supplement, but be sure to talk to your doctor before adding supplements.
You can also check out our guides on multivitamins for men and supplements to help gain weight.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.