If you ask any nutritionist, dietitian, or medical expert, he/she will tell you that iron is one of the most important, if not the most important, mineral in our body. Iron plays a vital role, and without iron, our body cannot function properly. The primary role of iron is to carry oxygen in the blood to every cell in the body. We learned as children that “people cannot live without water and oxygen.” Most people know hair loss is closely linked to iron deficiency, but what are the other signs of iron deficiency?
We’ll take a look at some signs and symptoms. But what you need to understand is that iron is a crucial part of hemoglobin. Without iron, your body can’t produce hemoglobin, and you will be at risk of anemia.
How much iron do you need?
Women need much more iron than men. When it comes to adults, the daily recommended dose of iron is 8mg for males and 18mg for females (per the Center for Disease Control and Prevention).
Pregnant women need even more iron. Think of the baby/embryo as a parasite that’s taking iron from you. You therefore need to feed that parasite and yourself. During pregnancy, women also increase their circulation, so they need at least 27mg of iron per day. What is interesting is that, during lactation, women need less iron, or 9mg per day.
Iron deficiency occurs when your body doesn’t have enough iron to produce hemoglobin. There are two types of iron: heme iron, which is the iron from animal sources, and non-heme iron, sourced from plants. Animal-sourced iron is better, as your blood can absorb it more easily. The best animal sources of iron are beef, liver, and oysters.
Causes of iron deficiency
Before we discuss the signs of iron deficiency, let’s list some of the causes of anemia. When your body is low on iron, it can wreak havoc all over. So here are some things to watch out for:
- As mentioned, lack of iron in your diet will lead to iron deficiency. Malnutrition is the leading cause of death and disease in developing countries. It’s crucial that you get your iron doses from food, as it’s much better absorbed than from supplements. Yes, pregnant women take supplements, but in any other case, you need to source iron from food.
- Blood loss is another common cause of iron deficiency. And it can happen to any of us. If you get injured, you usually lose blood. And you have to replenish that blood by consuming more iron. Menstruating women are also at risk of iron deficiency. They lose a lot of blood, especially during heavy periods. Slow and chronic blood loss is also a common cause. For example, people suffering from a colon polyp, peptic ulcer, or colorectal cancer are at risk.
- Inability to absorb iron from your food is another leading cause. Some people just have trouble absorbing iron. Some disorders that can disrupt your ability to absorb iron include intestinal disorders and celiac disease. Any other disorder that affects your intestines also puts you in danger of iron deficiency.
That being said, let’s take a look at common signs of iron deficiency.
Fatigue and exhaustion
As mentioned a number of times, we need oxygen to function properly. When you lack iron, your body compensates. You don’t produce enough hemoglobin, so the body sends oxygen only to the vital organs. As a result, most of your organs work in overdrive to deliver results.
But your body can’t function like this for a prolonged period of time, and you’ll start feeling exhausted. And that’s the first sign of iron deficiency. Your body can’t deliver and carry oxygen to your cells, and your energy levels are affected.
In addition to feeling exhausted, you will be unable to focus, and you’ll feel weak and sluggish. Now, it’s worth mentioning that fatigue is a symptom of many conditions, but if it doesn’t go away with rest, check your iron levels.
Since iron is what supports hemoglobin production, you can understand how vital a role the mineral plays in your immune system. Once your levels of iron go down, your immune system is more prone to disease, infection, and inflammation. Infections are fought off in the spleen, which is where red blood cells transport oxygen. Without iron, your body can’t transfer oxygen to the crucial organs where your body fights off infections.
In addition to the spleen, red blood cells carry oxygen to the lymph nodes, the home for white blood cells. And we know that white blood cells fight infections. Your body doesn’t produce white blood cells without iron, and a low white blood cell count makes you more susceptible to infections. It’s as simple as that.
When you are sick, your skin is usually pale. People often link pale skin with being sick, and there’s a simple explanation for that: hemoglobin gives your skin a rosy and reddish color. So, without hemoglobin, your skin looks lighter.
When you have low levels of iron, your red blood cells become smaller and paler. This symptom is easier to detect in people with a lighter skin tone. The best area to notice the pale skin is the bottom eyelid; when it’s lighter than usual, you’re suffering from iron deficiency.
Colds hands and feet
Iron plays a huge role in carrying oxygen throughout your body. In other words, iron helps with circulation. One of the first signs of poor circulation is cold hands and feet. Oxygen just doesn’t reach them without a proper amount of iron. And that’s why during winter, it’s good to increase your iron intake. You’ll feel warmer, and your body can cope with the low temperatures.
Another side effect of low oxygen in your blood is an irregular heartbeat. You feel a shortness of breath, and, as a result, your heart tries to pump out more blood than it should. Your heart rate changes, all due to low iron levels.
It’s not only your blood cells that need oxygen to function—your muscles need oxygen as well. Without oxygen, your muscles can’t replenish themselves. Lack of oxygen will enlarge them and they become painful. It happens to all muscles, but the tongue is what you will notice instantly. People with iron deficiency are also prone to cracks on the side of the mouth.
Restless legs syndrome
Restless legs syndrome is a sign of many conditions and disorders, and iron deficiency is one of them. What is restless legs syndrome? The best way to describe it is an urge to move your legs, accompanied by an unpleasant, crawling sensation in the legs. Sometimes, the pain and sensation can make it hard to sleep at night.
This is a condition that’s explained by “cravings for non-food substances.” The list includes clay, chalk, and even dirt. The condition is known as “pica,” and scientists have yet to figure out why this condition happens.
I’ve left one of the most common signs of iron deficiency for the very end. Once iron deficiency develops into anemia, you’ll start losing hair. And it all comes down to oxygen again. Your hair follicles need oxygen as well. When they don’t get it, they go into a resting stage, and your hair falls out. The good news is that once you improve your iron levels, your hair will start growing again. But while you have anemia, you can lose as many as 100 strands of hair per day.