6 signs that you have an iron deficiency

Do you feel tired and exhausted all the time? Could you be suffering from an iron deficiency? Find out the symptoms and causes of iron deficiency and the dietary changes that you need to make to improve your haemoglobin count.

Low iron count or iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional disorder that afflicts a large number of Indians, particularly females, in the childbearing age. According to the World Health Organisation, approximately 50% of Indians suffer from iron deficiency. And the numbers are significantly high in women, particularly those living in rural areas and belonging to the lower economic strata.

Considering the finding, the chances of you or someone you know suffering from some degree of iron deficiency are high. And, just being a woman, puts you in the more susceptible category. Haemoglobin levels in healthy females should be between 12.0 – 15.5 per decilitre. And, the count in healthy males should be between 13.5 – 17.5 decilitre.

What are the most common symptoms of iron deficiency?

You can tell if you are low in iron if you identify yourself as having the following symptoms. Of course, these are just indications; you need to visit a doctor and have him run a blood test, to confirm if you are really deficient in iron.

You experience unexplained fatigue and lethargy

Low iron levels can cause you to feel tired all the time. If you get enough rest, eat well, exercise and keep yourself hydrated, and still suffer from unexplained fatigue and tiredness, then you have cause to worry. You must get your haemoglobin levels tested, to rule out an iron deficiency, because low levels of iron are often the culprit, for these symptoms.

The body converts iron into haemoglobin, the primary substance that constitutes the red blood cells, which transport oxygen to the rest of the body. There is not enough haemoglobin in the body when it lacks iron. And as a consequence, your cells do not receive enough oxygen, leading to extreme tiredness.

You are often out of breath

You find yourself getting out of breath while doing the simplest chores. You become breathless, after the slightest exertion. You can't climb a flight of stairs without struggling for air. Your endurance level drops because your heart and lungs are not receiving sufficient oxygen, to function to their full ability. Your body is not making enough haemoglobin because of the low iron levels, and that causes you to have trouble breathing.

Your skin looks pale and drained out

You notice pallor under the eyes and your skin; you look pale and drained out. Friends and well-wishers ask after your health. And if you look into the mirror and your reflection appears washed out, it signals a low iron count.

to confirm, inspect the inside of your bottom eyelids. Do they lack a distinct red colour? Is the inside of your mouth pale pink? Are your gums and lips missing a healthy red colour? The reason could well be an iron deficiency.

You are often indisposed

Do you fall ill often? Are you forever, battling with the common cold, flu, viral fever, etc.? Research indicates that an iron deficiency could be the cause of frequent bouts of illnesses. Iron deficiency can severely damage the immune system, making individuals more prone to contracting viruses and infections. If you find you are ill most of the time, it is time to get your haemoglobin level tested.

You suffer from plapitations

The heart beats constantly, but people normally do not sense its rhythmic beat. However, if you can feel your heart beating, there is often a cause for it. You possibly exerted yourself, doing something physically challenging, such as a strenuous workout, climbed stairs or ran or indulged in something equally exhausting. Alternatively, you may be fearful or excited about something. The heart races under such circumstances, and it is absolutely normal for it to do so.

However, if you find your heart pounding against your chest, or beating erratically, often momentarily, it could be because of iron deficiency. Run a blood test to check your haemoglobin count.

You suffer from pica

Do you experience an urge to eat unusual things? Non-food stuff such as chalk, clay, dirt, coal and toothpaste, etc.? It is called pica, and it is a disorder, usually associated with pregnancy. Young children suffer from it, as well. When a non-pregnant individual experiences such urges, it is usually a sign of low levels of iron. There could be other reasons too, but those are mostly psychosomatic.

Reasons for an iron deficiency

You may be eating healthily and still have an iron deficiency. The most common causes for individuals to have a low iron count are –

  • Menorrhagia: Menorrhagia is the medical term for a very heavy or prolonged menstrual cycle in women. In this condition, the bleeding is more severe and more prolonged than average. It means women suffering from the medical condition lose a lot of blood, through the menstrual flow. The excessive loss of blood increases their risk of becoming iron deficient
  • Inability to absorb iron: This is another cause for anaemia or iron deficiency. In healthy people, the small intestine facilitates the absorption of iron present in the food that they eat. However, certain conditions of the digestive system prevent this from happening. The most common of these disorders is celiac disease and other inflammatory bowel diseases. These conditions prevent the body from absorbing nutrients. Medications, such as Proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) and antacids, are also responsible. They interfere with the production of stomach acids and hamper iron absorption
  • Diet issues: Sometimes the diet is deficient in iron, as may be the case with vegetarians and vegans. A diet lacking in animal products may sometimes be the reason behind iron deficiency. Though that is not always the case. Individuals can get iron from a vegetarian and vegan diet, provided they choose the right foods. Certain foods like moringa leaves are rich in iron. Other plant-based iron-rich foods include nuts and seeds, legumes and leafy greens etc. Iron-rich foods must be consumed with vitamin C rich foods, such as citrus fruits and capsicums as they enhance iron absorption from the vegetarian sources

How to boost iron levels

The best way to improve iron levels in your body is to get more of it through your food. What you eat matters. Your main focus must be to get more iron-rich foods on your plate. Before you do that, it is important to identify the best sources of iron.

Dietary iron is classified into two types –

  • Heme iron: This is the kind of iron available in non-vegetarian foods. It is easily assimilated into the body. The best sources of heme iron are red meat, offal, fish, poultry and shellfish
  • Non-heme iron: This is the iron you get from plant-based foods, such as peas, beans, lentils, soya bean, tofu and seeds like sesame, pumpkin and flaxseeds. Almonds and cashew nuts, and vegetables like potatoes and spinach and fruits and whole grains and mushrooms

The problem with non-heme iron is that it is not easily absorbed. It is a good source and the only source of iron for vegans and vegetarians. The trick to increase absorption of non-heme iron is to combine it with vitamin C. Consume iron-rich foods with broccoli, melons, potatoes, berries etc., or a glass of orange juice or squeeze a little lime on your salad.

Consuming non-heme iron foods along with vitamin C rich foods help in the former's absorption, by as much as three times. Moreover, vitamin C is an excellent antioxidant and does wonders to your health.

Are iron supplements a solution

Doctors do prescribe iron supplements, especially when the haemoglobin count is dangerously low. Iron supplements are also regularly prescribed during pregnancy. It is safe to take these supplements, especially when the doctor prescribes them. However, they do lead to side-effects, such as constipation and severe nausea.

Excessive doses of an iron supplement can cause mild to serious side effects. Take iron supplements only after a test to check your body's iron reserves, and only after consulting a doctor. Iron supplements must be taken before meals (it helps subdue the nauseous feeling) with a glass of nimbu pani or fresh orange juice. Do not have them with tea, coffee or milk, as these inhibit the absorption of iron.


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