At a daily requirement of only 8 – 18 mg (depending on an individual’s gender and age), iron is classified as a micro-nutrient. However, it is one of the most important elements of a healthy diet. Iron is essential for the production of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells which is responsible for carrying oxygen through the blood stream to every cell in the human body. Iron is also essential for growth of new tissues, cellular regeneration, and even the production of some hormones. Needless to say, without an adequate supply of iron, every organ feels the drain!
Despite the trace amounts needed to maintain optimal health, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional disorder in the world. This is because iron is very hard to digest. With a perfectly healthy digestive tract, the average person only obtains between 14% – 18% of the total bio-available iron from food. To complicate matters, many people suffer from poor digestion due to hormonal imbalances like stress and anxiety, certain medications, or a variety of other environmental factors. (Read more about digestive health in this article!) Because iron requires a healthy level of hydrochloric acid for our bodies to process it, this is a leading cause of iron deficiency. Other possible causes include menstruation, pregnancy, lack of proteins or insufficient calcium in the diet.
With so many common everyday factors which can lead to iron deficiency, it becomes easier to see why this disorder is so prevalent. Unfortunately, the symptoms of iron deficiency may be easily attributed to other illnesses or in some cases are so commonplace that many people simply ignore them. Read on to learn what signs to look for which may indicate that you are among the over 2 billion people worldwide who are affected by iron deficiency!
This is the most common symptom of iron deficiency and possibly the easiest to overlook. Fatigue is often attributed to being over-worked, not sleeping enough, stress or a long list of other common problems. However, because iron-deficient red blood cells can’t carry enough oxygen throughout the body and all of your cells need oxygen to function, iron deficiency is a leading cause of general lethargy.
2. Mood Swings and Irritability
Iron deficiency hinders the body’s ability to produce certain hormones. This can lead to mood swings, increased feelings of stress, anxiety and irritability – all symptoms which are also frequently attributed to other causes.
3. Lack of Concentration
When the mind and body are deprived of oxygen due to iron deficiency, one of the more subtle problems which may arise is a decline in concentration. Again, this symptom is a fairly common occurrence with a number of other possible causes and therefore is often misdiagnosed.
4. Dizzy Spells
Lack of oxygenated blood carried to the brain due to iron deficiency may also manifest as frequent and unexplainable dizzy spells, much like those experienced from standing up too fast or as a result of hyperventilation.
The human body stores reserves of iron in the spleen, liver, and intestines via an intracellular binding protein called ferritin. Ferritin releases iron back into the body to facilitate certain basic functions, one of which is sleep regulation. When the body experiences iron-deficiency and ferritin iron stores become depleted, a person may develop sleep disorders such as insomnia.
6. Dry or Cracked Lips
Ferritin proteins also release iron into the skin for cellular regeneration and growth of new cells. For this reason, dry or cracked skin, especially around the lips is another big indicator of a possible iron deficiency.
7. Brittle or Ridged Nails
Just like with skin, iron is necessary for growth of healthy nail tissue. If you notice that your nails have begun to break or crack very easily or if you develop ridges that run the length (not across) of your fingernails, this may also be a sign that your ferritin iron stores are depleted.
(Didn’t know your fingernails could talk? Read more about the 10 Warnings That Your Fingernails May Be Sending!)
8. “Pins and Needles”
You’re probably familiar with the feeling of “pins and needles” that you get when circulation gets cut off to one body part or another. While this can easily result from something as simple as falling asleep with one limb at an odd angle, poor circulation may also be caused by insufficient iron in the blood and the resulting lack of oxygen reaching your extremities. If you frequently experience burning or tingling in your hands or feet with no good explanation, iron deficiency is a possible cause.
9. Swollen or Sore Tongue
Iron deficiency can manifest in the form of glossitis – soreness, inflammation or discoloration of the tongue. If your tongue appears pale or smooth, it could be to lack of hemoglobin in the blood stream – a result of low iron levels.
10. Trouble Chewing or Swallowing
Glossitis caused by iron deficiency can also make it very difficult to chew or swallow food and water, especially if the tongue becomes very swollen toward the back of the throat. In severe cases, this condition may also affect a person’s ability to speak.
When your body is iron-deficient, red blood cell levels decline resulting in a visibly paler complexion. This becomes especially noticeable in the face, toes, fingertips, as well as any other areas where blood runs close to the skin’s surface.
12. Unexplained Headaches
Muscles in the face, neck, and shoulders deprived of oxygenated blood due to iron deficiency may become sore or tense, resulting in frequent and otherwise unexplainable headaches.
13. Sore or Stiff Limbs
Iron deficiency can lead to soreness in the muscles and joints. This may be more noticeable for those who lead very active lifestyles as depleted iron stores result in hindered cellular regeneration and slower muscle recovery.
14. Muscle Cramps
Red blood cells are not only responsible for delivering oxygen to cells throughout the body. They are also responsible for transporting carbon-dioxide and other metabolic wastes out of these tissues. When red blood cell levels drop due to iron deficiency, so does the body’s capacity to expel waste products which may result in frequent and unexplained muscle cramps.
15. Weakness and Lack of Stamina
Iron deficiency may cause a decline in both muscle strength and stamina. Again, lack of oxygenated blood needed to perform aerobic functions means that muscles must resort to anaerobic energy production which is far less sustainable and more taxing on the body.
16. Shortness of Breath
Especially noticeable while exercising, iron deficiency can cause you to feel out of breath must faster than normal as your body’s need for oxygenated blood increases, but supply is limited.
17. Heart Palpitations
Probably the most frightening of all of the symptoms of iron deficiency are heart palpitations – the fluttering sensation in your chest, throat or neck that feels like your heart is beating too hard and too fast. While heart palpitations have several possible causes, when experienced in conjunction with many of the other symptoms on our list, increasing your iron levels may be the key to calming them.
18. Craving Non-Food Items
Definitely the strangest symptom on our list – iron deficiency can cause the development of pica, an eating disorder where a person begins to crave non-food items like paper, dirt, or ice. While most of us will likely fight the urge to snack on potting soil or the corner of an envelope, chewing ice cubes may not seem like such a bad idea. However, this seemingly innocuous behavior could actually be a sign that you aren’t getting enough iron in your diet.
How Do I Know For Sure?
After reading over this list of symptoms, it may seem very clear to you that you are iron-deficient. However, it is important to remember that only a medical professional can perform the tests necessary to absolutely confirm a deficiency.
Fortunately, there are steps that you can take to naturally increase your iron levels. Try adding foods high in iron, calcium, and lean protein to your diet. Cut back on stimulants like caffeine and avoid exposure to cigarette smoke. To discover ten of the best natural remedies to heal an iron deficiency, read our follow up article here: 10 Easy Natural Remedies To Fix Your Iron Deficiency.