10 clues you might be iron deficient

By naturopath Margaret Jasinska

Iron deficiency is extremely common in women; along with vitamin D deficiency, it’s actually the most common nutritional deficiency in Australia.

You probably know that not getting enough iron can give you anaemia and can make you feel tired. This is because iron is required for haemoglobin production in red blood cells, which carries oxygen to every part of your body. However, iron is an extremely important mineral that has numerous other vital functions in your body.

Here are 10 signs you may not be getting enough iron

  1. You experience shortness of breath. If there’s not enough iron in your blood, there won’t be enough oxygen in your bloodstream. Therefore, you’ll feel like you can’t get enough air into your lungs no matter how deeply you breathe. The shortness of breath will be most obvious during exertion, such as climbing the stairs or exercising.
  2. You can feel your heart pounding in your chest. Anaemia can place a strain on your heart. If you already have an existing heart condition, being iron deficient can make it worse.
  3. You crave eating ice, clay, dirt or paper. If you start chewing on non-food items, there’s a good chance you may be iron deficient. Ice is the most commonly eaten item on this list, for obvious reasons.
  4. Restless legs syndrome is sometimes due to iron deficiency. Most people think of magnesium when treating this common condition. Magnesium definitely helps and resolves the problem for a large number of people. However iron deficiency (low ferritin) is a common culprit that’s often overlooked. Restless legs syndrome can be a cause of significant insomnia and depression, thus it’s essential to find the cause and treat it.
  5. Scalp hair loss in women is a very common symptom of iron deficiency. If there isn’t enough oxygen in your bloodstream, your body will channel what you do have to vital organs and away from trivial places like your scalp. Correcting the iron deficiency enables the hair to thicken again.
  6. A chronic cough can be a symptom of iron deficiency. If you are not a smoker and not taking medication that can cause a cough as a side effect (blood pressure tablets, for example), you may be iron deficient. Iron helps to regulate the production of proteins in the immune system that control inflammation; therefore an iron deficiency may make the upper airway more prone to inflammation, leading to a chronic cough. Find out more.
  7. Iron deficiency can slow down your thyroid gland and block its metabolism-boosting effects. Therefore if you’re feeling excessively cold, tired, depressed and unable to lose weight, ask your doctor to test your thyroid gland and your iron level.
  8. You’re more prone to being iron deficient if you suffer with irritable bowel syndrome, coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or other intestinal disease. Even if you’re getting enough iron in your diet, you may not absorb it well enough if you suffer with one of these problems. Sometimes an overgrowth of bad bacteria in the intestines can reduce your ability to absorb iron.
  9. Pregnancy can drain a large amount of iron from your body. This is especially true if you’ve been pregnant several times, particularly if you’ve had several children close together. There’s usually not enough opportunity to replenish your iron stores. So if you have two or more young children and you’re feeling exhausted all the time, it may not be normal. You could be iron deficient.
  10. You have a sore tongue. Being low in iron can reduce your level of myoglobin, which is a protein in red blood cells that supports muscle health, like the muscle that makes up your tongue. So being iron deficient can give you a sore, inflamed tongue. It can also make your tongue look unusually pale, rather than a healthy pink colour.

If you experience several of these symptoms, please see your doctor and request an iron blood test. The most useful test is called ferritin because it checks the amount of iron you have stored in your liver. It is a more reliable indicator of your iron status than a blood haemoglobin test.

Please don’t take an iron supplement unless a blood test has confirmed you are iron deficient, as too much iron can be harmful.

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