Tired, pale and constantly exhausted? If you're feeling sluggish and under the weather and you just can't work out why, it’s possible that you could be suffering from iron deficiency.
Being low on iron is a bit like driving your car when the petrol gauge is teetering on empty. You don’t have much in your tank, but somehow you manage to push on through with just enough to keep you going.
In this sense, iron is a bit like petrol — it gives your body the energy it needs by transporting oxygen through your blood stream. But when your body runs short and there isn't enough oxygen in the blood, it can send your energy levels on a downward spiral, affect your mood and put your immune system under pressure.
What is iron and why do we need it?
Iron is an essential mineral that can be found in a number of healthy foods. Your body needs it to make haemoglobin; a protein found in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to the rest of the body. When you don’t have enough iron in your body, your organs and tissues won't get enough oxygen and as a result, your health can start to suffer.
But how do you know if your iron is low?
Tiredness and feeling short of breath are two of the most common telltale signs that your iron count is low. The reason being, without enough iron, your body can't produce enough haemoglobin in your blood. And when there isn’t enough iron in your blood stream, the rest of your body can’t get the amount of oxygen it needs — this is what causes you to feel tired and short of breath.
What are the other symptoms to look out for?
- lack of energy
- difficulty concentrating
- shortness of breath
- pale skin
- frequent bouts of illness
- heart palpitations
- headaches and dizziness
- difficult regulating body temperature
- changes in the way food tastes
- sore and swollen tongue
What causes iron deficiency?
The majority of people absorb the iron they need without taking additional supplements. However, specific groups are more prone to iron deficiency, like babies, toddlers, teenagers (particularly girls), menstruating women, athletes, pregnant women and women who breastfeed, and those who don’t get enough iron in their diet like vegans and vegetarians.
Iron deficiency is extremely common — in fact it’s one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in the world, affecting around 2 billion people.
In adults, the most causes of iron deficiency includes:
Not getting enough iron in your diet — there are two types of dietary iron, haem iron (found in animal tissue such as meat, poultry and fish) and non-haem iron (from plant-based foods). Your body absorbs haem iron much more easily than non-haem iron.
Blood loss — if you suffer with heavy periods, regular nosebleeds or donate bloody regularly, you are more at risk.
Your body needs more iron — if you are pregnant or breastfeeding your body needs more iron than you would usually consume.
Exercise — athletes are prone to iron deficiency because intense exercise can increase red blood cells (which require more iron). Iron is also lost through sweating.
Your body can’t absorb iron — healthy adults absorb around 18 per cent of the available iron from a typical western diet (which includes animal foods) and about ten per cent from a vegetarian diet. Some people’s bodies, however, aren’t able to absorb or use iron from food.
So what can you do about it?
First and foremost, if you suffer with any of the symptoms above, consult your doctor to test your iron levels. They’ll give you a simple blood test to measure all components of your blood. This test will also rule out the possibility that you could be anaemic — iron deficiency anaemia (IDA) is when your blood doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells. If left untreated, this can make you more susceptible to illness and infection, as a lack of iron affects the body's natural defence system (the immune system).
The easiest way to rebuild a low iron count is to take an iron supplement. But it’s worth noting that you MUST get a diagnosis from your doctor before you start taking the supplements. Just like having an iron deficiency, having too much iron can also be bad for your health. In fact, in can be toxic. The body can’t metabolise high doses of iron. Excess iron can start to irritate the lining of your gastrointestinal tract and can then lead to further health concerns.
For the majority of people, blood counts usually return to normal after two months of iron therapy. However, it’s advised to continue taking supplements for another 6 to 12 months to build up the body's iron stores in the bone marrow.
What are the best iron supplements to take?
If you’re diagnosed as iron deficient, you should keep a few things in mind before taking the supplement. Take calcium separately, as it can interfere with the absorption of iron. Consider taking iron with vitamin C, as it can improve the absorption of iron. Also, you may experience certain side effects with some supplements, the most common being constipation, followed by stomach pain, dark stools, nausea and vomiting.
Want to know which iron supplements will work best for you?
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