10 Signs You May Have An Iron Deficiency

4. Restless Legs Syndrome People suffering from lack of enough iron will often have what is known as Restless Leg Syndrome where they will experience a… Denis Courtney - July 13, 2016

Iron is a crucial mineral in the body for its growth and development. It is necessary for most processes to take place in the body. Iron is a key mineral for metabolism in the body and plays a vital role in the health and well-being of the body. Most of the body’s iron is found in the hemoglobin of the red blood cells (about two-thirds of the body’s iron is in hemoglobin).

One of iron’s most important roles in the body is helping the Red blood cells transport oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body. Low iron levels in the body mean less oxygen-carrying red blood cells are made by the body, in a process known as hematopoiesis, leading to iron-deficiency anemia.

Iron is necessary for the body’s conversion of blood sugar to energy as the oxygen transported by hemoglobin is then used in burning down these sugars. The energy released is then utilized in the body.

The production of enzymes in the body is highly dependent on iron. These enzymes which include amino acids, hormones, and neurotransmitters are necessary to enhance the production of new cells. Normal functioning of the immune system as well as cognitive functioning is also highly dependent on healthy amounts of iron in the body. For this reason alone, if the body has low levels of iron, normal hemoglobin production slows down translating to low supply of oxygen necessary for the proper functioning of vital organs needed for survival.

Iron can be lost from the body in a variety of ways including urination, sweating, defecation, and exfoliation of old dead skin cells. Bleeding is, however, the biggest contributor to the loss of iron from the body. This especially affects women during menstruation and childbirth. This is why women are commonly encouraged to eat as many iron-rich foods as possible. Expectant women are usually encouraged to consume iron-rich food that is more than their normal consumption and are required to take at least 10-20 mg of iron per day. This can be attributed to the fact that the growing fetus is in need of a constant supply of iron as it requires it to build its own iron reserve and this it does by absorbing those present in the mother’s body

There are two types of iron: haem and non-haem iron.

Haem Iron is found in foods that are animal-based, such as red meat, poultry, and fish. This type of iron is easily absorbed by the body, and hence foods having haem iron are considered the best sources for increasing and maintaining healthy iron levels in the body.

Non-Haem Iron, on the other hand, is found in foods that are plant-based, such as cereals, vegetables, and legumes. Although this type of iron is available in larger quantities in our diet compared to haem iron (around 65% of the body’s iron requirements is obtained from non-haem iron), it is not easily absorbed by the body.

Iron-rich foods which you should always remember to take in healthy servings to ensure you have adequate amounts of iron in the body include liver, chicken breast, oysters, lean beef, bran flakes, canned chickpeas, spinach and macadamia nuts. You should, however, be cautious when taking liver as an iron supplement when expectant as it is very rich in vitamin A which can be dangerous to the growing fetus. You should, therefore, try as much as possible to combine it with other foods or drinks rich in vitamin C such as oranges, kiwi fruits, tomatoes, lentils, turnips and strawberries for effective absorption of the iron.

Some foods that we eat reduce our bodies’ ability to absorb iron. Drinking caffeine (in coffee and tea) with meals can reduce iron absorption by 50% – 60%. Phosphate found in cold drinks and phytates found in some grains also affect iron absorption. Such foods should be avoided especially by those whose diet is low in iron.

The iron needed each day by a person depends on their age, gender, and general health. Infants and babies require more iron than adults since their bodies are growing quickly. Women need more iron than men to replace the iron lost through bleeding during menstruation and childbirth.

1. Extreme exhaustion and fatigue

Extreme exhaustion and fatigue are one common signs that you have low levels of iron in your system. Fatigue normally occurs when the body does not have enough red blood cells to transport oxygen to all the body parts. This is because red blood cells have less hemoglobin than normal, hence experiencing difficulty in circulating oxygen to all the cells. Less oxygen transported to all the body parts means the body is essentially suffocating from within. If less oxygen reaches the body tissues, the body is deprived of the energy that it needs, leading to a constant tired feeling. Insufficient amounts of iron will leave you sluggish, weak and unable to focus on your daily tasks. Tasks that were easily done before, such as working out, suddenly become hard work.

This symptom is the most difficult one to detect, as it is difficult to attribute it to low levels of iron. Unless you consult a physician, you may be looking at all the wrong places for a solution to your problem. Most people are used to having fast-paced lives and dismiss their fatigue and dizziness as normal tiredness and a part of their life. This, however, may be a case of low iron levels in their body and not just a normal tired feeling.

In as much as fatigue can be a sign of many other conditions, you should consider having your body’s iron levels checked if it does not go away with adequate rest, especially if you also feel weak, unable to focus, and irritable. Constant fatigue and lack of energy to perform even the mundane tasks in life is a red flag for low iron levels in the body. This is why people whose iron deficiency eventually progresses to anemia are said to have “tired blood.”

Another symptom is frequent infections where a person falls sick more often than is normal. As mentioned above, iron is necessary for a strong immune system, and therefore low levels of this mineral will weaken your body’s immune system, making you more vulnerable to infections. You may end up falling sick every other time and get serious infections that your body would normally fight off if your immune system were functioning normally.

Insufficient amounts of iron in the body mean that the red blood cells will be unable to carry oxygen (or will carry insufficient amounts of it) to the spleen, which is one of the body organs where infections can be fought off. This means that the body’s immune system will be weakened, leading to more frequent infections.

Low iron levels lead to less oxygen being carried to the lymph nodes, which house white blood cells that protect the body from any infections and diseases. Iron deficiency also causes the low production of white blood cells, which are essential for fighting off infections. A low white blood cell count means the body is susceptible to infections. The body usually needs enough white blood cells to protect itself from diseases and infections, therefore enough iron is needed in the diet for the production of sufficient white blood cells, enough to ward off any infection.

Therefore, if you fall sick often, and especially if you are always suffering from respiratory illnesses, you need to see a physician as iron deficiency may be the cause of that. People rarely associate a weak immune system, and hence frequent illnesses and infections, with low iron levels in the body. Eating an iron-rich diet takes care of that problem and ensures your body’s immune system is functioning optimally and well-primed to fight off any infection that may occur.

3. Pale skin

Hemoglobin usually gives the skin a rosy color and healthy glow, hence low levels of hemoglobin cause the skin to become pale. The paleness can be localized (involving one limb or body part only) or generalized (all over the body.)

Iron is an essential element for the production of blood in the body. Most of the body’s iron is found in the red blood cells, hence less iron means less red blood cells are produced. This leads to the paleness of the skin.

When red blood cells have low iron levels, they usually become smaller and paler in the center, hence the skin also becomes paler. This affects all skin tones, though it is easier to detect in people with lighter complexions. Despite the color of your skin, if the area inside your bottom eyelid or your fingernails seems lighter than normal then that could be a sign of iron deficiency in your body.

Since iron, mostly found in hemoglobin, helps in the transport of oxygen from the lungs to all the body parts, an iron deficiency means less oxygen is transported all over the body, resulting in pale skin.

Skin paleness is considered an emergency when it is accompanied by other symptoms such as fainting, fever, abdominal pain and bleeding from the rectum. If these symptoms occur, then one should visit a doctor immediately. Pale skin on its own should not be ignored, as it may be a sign of anemia due to low iron levels, hence low blood levels, in the body. One should consume iron-rich foods such as spinach, and if the paleness does not go away, they should consult a doctor, as it could be a precursor to more serious problems in the body. Paleness accompanied by fatigue and mild shortness of breath are indicators of an iron deficiency in the body.

4. Restless Legs Syndrome

People suffering from lack of enough iron will often have what is known as Restless Leg Syndrome where they will experience a strong urge to move their legs, to alleviate unpleasant sensations. This urge will often come with an unpleasant crawling sensation in their legs which can make it hard for them to sleep. The sensations range from mild to unbearable and can be relieved by moving or rubbing the legs. People suffering from the Restless Legs Syndrome can experience the symptoms every day or occasionally, and may have problems sitting down for long periods of time.

The Restless Legs Syndrome occurs when the legs are at rest, and is characteristically most severe in the evenings and nights, disrupting a person’s sleep. The uncomfortable and crawling sensations are felt in the legs when one is sitting or lying down. People who have experienced this describe the feeling as tingling, burning, crawling and throbbing. This feeling may also be experienced in other parts of the body such as the head and arms.

Research shows that the Restless Legs Syndrome is related to a dysfunction in the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps the brain to control muscle movement. A part of the brain called the basal ganglia uses dopamine to control the body’s muscle activity and movement. Dopamine is the messenger between the brain and the body’s nervous system that helps the brain regulate and coordinate movement. Iron, found in red blood cells, is involved in the production of dopamine. An iron deficiency will lead to poor dopamine production in the body, and this is linked to the Restless Legs Syndrome. Low amounts of dopamine in the brain causes muscle spasms and involuntary movements, such as Restless Legs Syndrome.

Dopamine levels naturally reduce towards the evening, which explains why the Restless Legs Syndrome is most severe in the evening and at night.

5. Swollen tongue

A swollen tongue is a condition where the whole tongue, or a part of it, is bloated, enlarged or distended. It is another symptom of iron deficiency as the lack of oxygen will cause the muscles to enlarge and become painful. Other muscles in the body will also be affected, but the most prominent is the tongue. Cracks that are on the sides of the mouth may also be indicators of low iron levels in the blood.

People with an iron deficiency may have a tongue that is inflamed, sore and swollen. It appears pale and smooth due to the low levels of hemoglobin in the blood (due to low iron levels) and the loss of the finger-like projections found on the surface of the tongue. This leads to problems with speaking, chewing and swallowing.

During the early stages of iron deficiency, symptoms such as a swollen tongue may not be visible. However, as the deficiency progresses, the swollen tongue and other symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, headaches, fainting, brittle nails, coldness in the hands and feet, shortness of breath, and pale skin become more pronounced. A person ends up having difficulties when eating food as chewing and swallowing the food becomes painful and difficult. Holding a conversation becomes a problem as talking is also painful with a swollen tongue.

A swollen tongue due to an iron deficiency is best treated using iron supplements which increase the amounts of iron in the blood, hence the bone marrow is able to make more red blood cells. The iron supplements are obtainable in oral, liquid and injection forms. For a person with a swollen tongue, liquid supplements are best taken using a straw. Intravenous ones are suitable for patients whose tongues are so swollen that they cannot swallow anything at all, including liquids.

6. Pica

You may have seen people who are constantly craving non-food substances such as clay, dirt or chalk to chew on. This is a condition known as pica. The craving and eating of non-food substances must have lasted for at least one month to fit the diagnosis of pica. This is usually a result of the low levels of iron in their bodies, hence they are forced to opt for these substances to sate the cravings. Pica is common among children and expectant women. This can be harmful since it can interfere with the absorption of iron from other foods. The exact cause of pica is not clearly known, but it is highly associated with iron deficiency anemia. However, when associated with iron deficiency, physicians see it as an effect rather than a cause. Pica, therefore, shows underlying problems such as low iron levels in the blood.

There is no single medical test for pica. Since it can occur in poor with poor nutrition, doctors can test the blood levels of iron or zinc of someone who habitually craves and eats substances such as chalk or dirt. They can also do blood tests to check for anemia, since low iron levels in the blood, which are thought to trigger pica, result in anemia.

Pica may lead to significant health risks that may require medical intervention. Patients are susceptible to metabolic and electrolyte metabolic, mercury and lead poisoning, hypokalemia, tooth wear, parasitic infections, intestinal obstruction, various problems with the gastrointestinal tract.

Treatment of pica should first address the issue of missing nutrients in the patient, such as iron deficiency. The majority of the cases of pica usually disappear upon iron supplementation. People suffering from pica can also be given medicines to help reduce it if the abnormal eating behavior is due to a developmental disorder.

7. Dwindling hair lines

Dwindling hair lines and hair loss can be attributed to many things such as aging or unhealthy hair care. This is not so especially if you are losing lots of hair at an alarming rate. Extreme cases of low levels of iron will lead to anemia and because of this, low levels of oxygen to the hair follicles will be experienced as they will go into a resting stage forcing the hair to fall out and they will not grow back unless the anemia has been dealt with.

When the iron deficiency in the body progresses into full-blown iron deficiency anemia, it can cause hair loss. The body usually goes into survival mode since there is less oxygen transported by hemoglobin to all the body parts. Hemoglobin transports oxygen that is required for the growth and repair of body cells, including the cells that make up the hair follicles. The body channels the available oxygen to support essential functions other than non-vital ones like keeping the hair intact.

Temporary hair loss, such as hair loss due to iron deficiency, is known as telogen effluvium. This is an abnormality that causes the hair that would normally be in the growing phase to be prematurely pushed to the resting phase of the hair growth cycle. This leads to the affected hairs falling out. This is usually temporary if the underlying cause is promptly addressed. Hair growth is usually one of the body processes to be affected by iron deficiency since hair is a non-essential body part.

Hair loss can be due to other problems, and it is considered normal to lose up to 100 strands of hair per day. However, if the hair loss is excessive and the hair is not growing back, it may be a sign of iron deficiency. If you are experiencing serious hair loss, it would be advisable to consult your doctor for iron supplements or for help on how to eat a more iron-rich diet.

8. Shortness of breath

You will easily experience breathlessness no matter how deep you breathe when suffering from insufficient iron in the body. This is because despite breathing deeply, there are inadequate vessels (hemoglobin) to help carry the much-needed oxygen to all the vital organs for survival. During this time, simple tasks such as climbing a flight of stairs, exercising or even going on a short walk will be difficult for you to accomplish. This should however not be confused with asthma which is a totally different respiratory disease which needs immediate medical attention just like anemia.

Iron is used in the production of the red blood cells in the body, which are used to store and carry oxygen in the blood. Less iron in the body means less red blood cells are produced, hence the body’s tissues and cells will not get as much oxygen as is required. This leads to shortness of breath, among other iron deficiency symptoms.

The iron deficiency that may result in shortness of breath in a person may be due to an increased demand for iron in the body, such as during rapid periods of growth (especially in children), heavy menstruation, excessive bleeding, pregnancy, and surgeries. It can also be due to the decreased intake or absorption of iron in the body, such as eating diets that do not have enough iron-rich foods or foods that interfere with the absorption of iron such as coffee and tea.

A person who experiences shortness of breath, especially when doing mundane and normal day-to-day tasks that they used to do easily should see a doctor to have their iron levels tested. If iron deficiency is found to be the cause, they can be advised on the foods to eat in order to increase iron in their blood, hence improving oxygen circulation in the body and hence stopping the breathing problem.

9. Heart palpitations

Increased heartbeats will also be experienced due to insufficient amounts of oxygen to the heart. The increased pounding is due to the fact that the heart is being overworked as it is forced to make do with the small amounts of oxygen present in the body. An overworked heart can lead to irregular heartbeats, enlargement, heart murmurs, and in worst cases heart failure which normally happens if you have been battling anemia for a very long time.

Iron in the red blood cells helps in the circulation of oxygen to all the body parts and helps regulate cell growth. The center of a red blood cell is made up of hemoglobin, which is an iron-rich protein. As the blood moves through the lungs, oxygen molecules normally attach themselves to the iron component of hemoglobin. When the blood leaves the lungs, it then releases oxygen to all the body cells and tissues and removes any carbon dioxide. If the blood does not have enough iron to create hemoglobin, the new red blood cells produced will be unhealthy and unable to pick up and deliver oxygen properly.

When the red blood cells are unhealthy and cannot adequately bind oxygen, the body cells and tissues become starved of oxygen. This results in the heart pumping much harder than normal to send out more red blood cells for oxygen transport, to make up for the missing oxygen in the cells and tissues. This pressure and stress on the heart result in heart palpitations and abnormal heartbeats. However, no matter how hard the heart beats, without enough healthy red blood cells, the body tissues will still lack oxygen.

Anyone that usually has heart problems and experiences heart palpitations and irregular heartbeats should have their iron levels checked since iron deficiency can worsen the existing heart problems.

10. Headaches and dizziness

Constant headaches are experienced by a person with iron deficiency in their body as the mind will be overworked if it gets an irregular supply of oxygen. This is because your mind is responsible for every action that you wish to undertake and for it to work effectively it should have a regular supply of energy in the form of oxygen. If the brain does not get this oxygen, the arteries will be swollen making you experience those painful headaches.

A body that is iron-deficient will usually prioritize getting oxygen to the brain before any other tissue since the brain is among the most essential body parts. Blood that has low amounts of iron means it has less red blood cells and hemoglobin, hence lowering the amount of blood that reaches the brain. When oxygen reaching the brain is less than what is required, this can cause swelling of the arteries in the brain, leading to headaches.

A person diagnosed with anemia (an iron deficiency disease) will note that their dizziness began with the start of other anemia symptoms such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath and hair loss. Hemoglobin that is in the red blood cells carries oxygen from the lungs to all body cells and tissues. When the level of hemoglobin is low due to low amounts of iron in the blood, the body is deprived of oxygen. Shortage of oxygen in the brain or low blood pressure due to poor oxygenation of the heart’s muscles and blood vessels can lead to dizziness.

Dizziness and headaches due to iron deficiency are treated indirectly. The doctor, after evaluation and blood tests, addresses the underlying cause of the low iron levels. Supplements may be recommended and for patients undergoing chemotherapy, drugs that help stimulate the production of red blood cells in the blood are administered.

If you experience any of these symptoms, you should see a qualified doctor to measure your iron levels. If iron deficiency is perceived to be the cause of any of the above, the doctor can then recommend supplements or foods that will increase the iron levels in the blood. Iron deficiency, if not checked, can result in anemia, hence we should do what we can to ensure that the iron in our blood is at acceptable levels.

Vegetarians especially need to check their diet to ensure it is high in iron-rich foods since red meat is the body’s main source of iron. Women who experience a heavy menstrual flow need to talk to their doctor since they may be at risk of anemia. This also applies to expectant women, since they require iron not only for themselves but also for the growing fetus. A doctor may recommend iron supplements for expectant women.