If you’re like me, “iron deficiency” is something you’ve self-diagnosed at least a dozen times without really understanding what it means. When I’m tired and don’t know why (or just don’t want to be); when I have a bruise with origins I can’t recall; and sometimes for no reason other than that I’m a vegetarian, I think to myself: Maybe I’m low on iron, and what I need is a supplement. Iron deficiency is, of course, a real condition only a doctor can diagnose. But in the meantime, if you’re concerned you might have iron deficiency — or you just think it’s time to finally learn what it is — here’s what you need to know.
What is iron deficiency?
Iron deficiency is the most common form of anemia, a condition in which blood is lacking in healthy red blood cells. Our bodies need iron in order to produce hemoglobin, which is the protein red blood cells use to carry oxygen to our tissues. In other words, without enough iron, the body can’t get as much oxygen as it needs. As a result, iron deficiency can result in fatigue and shortness of breath.
What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?
Many people may be iron deficient without realizing it; mild and even moderate cases may show no symptoms. Fatigue, shortness of breath, and chest pain are common symptoms of more severe iron deficiency.
Other common symptoms may include:
• Weakness and/or dizziness
• Brittle nails
• Coldness in the hands and feet
• Pica (a term for unusual cravings for nonfood items, such as ice or dirt)
• Irregular heartbeat (a sign of a more serious iron deficiency)
What causes iron deficiency?
There are a number of factors that can contribute to iron deficiency, but the most common is pregnancy. Iron deficiency affects women more often than men, and particularly pregnant women, one in six of whom are affected. More iron is needed during pregnancy in order to support fetal development, which is why pregnant women are often advised to take iron supplements and/or eat iron-rich foods (like meat, cereals, legumes, and green leafy vegetables). However, pregnant women with normal iron levels may not need to take supplements. A review of scientific studies across 40,000 subjects found that pregnant women with normal iron levels who took 30 milligrams of iron per day experienced no noticeable benefit to themselves or their fetuses, though it did lower their risk of anemia.
Other possible causes of iron deficiency include blood loss, which can include menstruation; up to 5 percent of women of childbearing age develop iron-deficiency anemia due to heavy periods.
People whose diets are very low in iron might also develop iron deficiency as a result. Vegetarians might be more at risk here because animal proteins are a large source of iron in many people’s diets, but there are many non-animal sources of iron (such as the previously mentioned cereals, legumes, and leafy green vegetables). Infants and children are also high-risk groups, particularly infants born at low birth weights and children who are experiencing growth spurts.
How is iron deficiency treated?
Once anemia has been diagnosed by a doctor (using a CBC, or complete blood count test), there are a number of treatment options. Most people who are low in iron will be advised to take iron supplements or adapt their diets to include more iron-rich foods. Eating foods high in vitamin C (like broccoli, oranges, leafy greens, peppers, and strawberries) helps the body better absorb dietary iron, too.
In cases where heavy bleeding is the source of iron deficiency, like in people with heavy periods, doctors will seek to address the bleeding itself; in the case of menstruation, that might mean birth control pills or devices.