Iron is a really important mineral in the body. It’s needed to make haemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells which gives them the ability to carry oxygen around the body. When you don’t have enough haemoglobin then your body can’t give your muscles the oxygen it needs, which leads to a condition called anaemia.
Some people can develop iron deficiency anaemia with no symptoms, while others develop different kinds of signs and symptoms depending on the severity of the anaemia, the speed of its development, and other factors such as age and overall health and wellbeing.
What causes iron deficiency?
It is estimated that one third of the world’s population is anaemic, mostly due to iron deficiency. (Auerbach and Adamson, 2015)
It can happen at almost any age, and for a number of reasons, including:
- Blood loss through heavy menstruation
- Pregnancy, which increases our iron requirements
- Restrictive diets or a lack of iron intake from diet
- Celiac disease
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease
What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?
Tiredness: Fatigue is often a sign of nutrient deficiency, and in the case of iron deficiency that is no exception. When you don’t have enough haemoglobin to carry oxygen around the body, your tissues are deprived of energy and your heart has to work harder to deliver adequate levels of oxygen around the body. If you find yourself tiring quickly, or suffering unusual tiredness with no changes to your lifestyle or routine, then you may be lacking in iron. (Hanif and Anwer, 2020)
Pale skin: Skin that appears paler than usual (especially in the inside of your eyelid) can help to determine whether or not you might be lacking in iron. Again, it all comes down to haemoglobin. Haemoglobin is what makes blood red, so a lack of haemoglobin results in skin losing its colour. Whilst paleness can appear all over the body, it might also affect specific areas, such as your gums and nails (Auerbach and Adamson, 2015).
Shortness of breath: This is all about oxygen levels in the body. If your red blood cells can’t carry enough oxygen due to a lack of functioning haemoglobin, then your breathing rate will increase as your body attempts to get the right amount of oxygen to your muscles. If activities such as walking and climbing the stairs have you feeling a little short of breath, then you might be lacking in iron (Stugiewicz et al., 2016)
Headaches: This one is more common in people who are menstruating. If you are losing blood through menstruation and have low iron levels, you might experience frequent or persistent headaches. Researchers believe that there might be a link between altered dopamine function and oestrogen in the body which can be impacted by low levels of iron, although more research is currently needed in this area (Tayyebi et al., 2019).
Heart palpitations: When your heartbeat becomes noticeable, it’s called a heart palpitation. They’re usually harmless, but they can be a sign of an underlying issue, including iron deficiency. Your heart needs to work harder to meet your body’s oxygen demands when it has lower levels of iron, which means that you might notice your heartbeat more, or it might feel like your heart is beating faster than usual. This, in turn, may cause complications for people with existing heart conditions as it can put extra strain on the heart (Anand and Gupta, 2018).
Changes to your hair, nails, and skin: As with most deficiencies, low iron levels can show outwardly in your skin and hair. If you’ve noticed that your hair isn’t growing, then it could be a sign of an iron deficiency as your body doesn’t have oxygen available for the cells which are responsible for hair growth. You might notice that your skin and hair becomes drier and weaker if you’re experiencing an iron deficiency. Iron deficiency can also cause hair loss, especially in women. Whilst our hair does fall out naturally when brushing and washing, it shouldn’t be coming out in clumps, which can be a sign of low iron levels (Salinas et al., 2020). Your nails, too, can be an indicator of iron deficiency. If you notice them becoming brittle, dry, or cracking, you may have a mild iron deficiency. In later stages of iron deficiency, where it becomes more serious, some people can develop a condition called koilonychia, where the middle of the nail dips inward and causing the nail to become spoon-shaped. This is a rare side effect of iron deficiency, but it can show that the deficiency is more severe (Rathod and Sonthalia, 2020).
Swelling of the tongue: Your mouth can be an indicator of multiple nutrient deficiencies, including iron. Indicators of low iron levels are ulcers, a smooth and swollen tongue, or a burning sensation in the mouth. Your tongue can also show an iron deficiency if it appears to be paler than usual (Wu et al., 2014).
What can I do to combat iron deficiency?
Taking a supplement or multivitamin containing iron can help to boost your iron intake. Vivo Life’s Vegan Multinutrient is an essential vitamin and mineral complex designed to support a plant-based diet. It contains iron to help the body with the production of haemoglobin.
You can also find iron in lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts and pumpkin seeds which will help to add extra iron into your diet.
Stugiewicz, M., Tkaczyszyn, M., Kasztura, M., Banasiak, W., Ponikowski, P. and Jankowska, E.A. (2016). The influence of iron deficiency on the functioning of skeletal muscles: experimental evidence and clinical implications. European Journal of Heart Failure, [online] 18(7), pp.762–773. doi:10.1002/ejhf.467.
Tayyebi, A., Poursadeghfard, M., Nazeri, M. and Pousadeghfard, T. (2019). Is There Any Correlation between Migraine Attacks and Iron Deficiency Anemia? A Case-Control Study. International Journal of Hematology-Oncology and Stem Cell Research, [online] 13(3), pp.164–171. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6801325/.
Salinas, M., Leiva-Salinas, M., Flores, E., López-Garrigós, M. and Leiva-Salinas, C. (2020). Alopecia and Iron Deficiency: An Interventional Pilot Study in Primary Care to Improve the Request of Ferritin. Advances in Hematology, 2020, pp.1–6. doi:10.1155/2020/7341018.
Wu, Y.-C., Wang, Y.-P., Chang, J.Y.-F., Cheng, S.-J., Chen, H.-M. and Sun, A. (2014). Oral manifestations and blood profile in patients with iron deficiency anemia. Journal of the Formosan Medical Association = Taiwan Yi Zhi, [online] 113(2), pp.83–87. doi:10.1016/j.jfma.2013.11.010.