Iron is a mineral found naturally in many foods, yet surprisingly, a significant number of people do not get enough of it. Iron deficiency can cause a host of health problems – and even directly affect the health of your brain.
This is the finding from recent research that found that low iron levels can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia. A meta-analysis analyzed survey results and studies, and found that a number of people with depression, anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, and psychotic disorders also reported having a history of iron deficiency anemia.
Iron deficiency is a common problem. Research shows that up to 10.5 percent of Americans suffer from iron deficiency anemia, a condition in which the body does not have enough healthy red blood cells. But iron deficiency has a bigger impact on your mental health – it can affect your heart and even cause problems during pregnancy.
With that in mind, what are the signs of an iron deficiency and what should you do if you suspect your levels are low? Nutritionists break it down.
Signs of iron deficiency
It’s important to know this up front: It’s not always easy to tell if you have low iron levels. “The signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia are not reliable in screening for or detecting this type of nutritional anemia,” says Deborah Cohen, DCN, RDN, assistant professor in the department of preventive and clinical nutritional sciences at Rutgers University. Symptoms also tend to be a little nondescript and can easily be confused with symptoms of other conditions, says Jessica Cording, RD, author of The Little Book of Game Changers.
However, there are some signs that you may be deficient in iron. Keep these in mind.
1. You feel tired and weak
Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of iron deficiency. With iron deficiency anemia, your body can’t make enough hemoglobin, a substance in red blood cells that allows them to carry oxygen, explains Sonia Angelone, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “The lack of oxygen getting to the tissues leads to fatigue,” she says. However, there is a range that depends on how severe your iron deficiency is. “You may feel a little tired or very tired,” Cording says.
2. Your skin is lighter than usual
The reason for this is simple: Hemoglobin gives red blood cells their red color, so lower hemoglobin levels combined with iron deficiency makes the skin appear less red. However, because so many factors can affect your skin tone, this can be a tricky symptom to pinpoint for an iron deficiency, Cording says.
3. You have shortness of breath
Again, there are many things that can cause shortness of breath. Low oxygen levels due to iron deficiency is one of them, says Angelone. “This leads to a faster breathing rate because the body is trying to get more oxygen,” she says. “You’ll notice shallow, rapid breathing.”
4. You are dealing with headaches and dizziness
Cording says iron deficiency anemia can cause the brain, along with other organs, to get less oxygen than it needs to function at peak performance — and that can lead to headaches. Research has found that up to 80 percent of people with anemia experience headaches and 36 percent suffer from migraines.
5. Cold hands and feet
Iron deficiency causes oxygenated blood to reach your hands and feet—and that can make them feel cold, says Angelone. While some people are more likely to get cold hands and feet, if this is something new to you and you’re experiencing other symptoms of anemia, Cording says it’s worth pursuing.
6. You have “spoon” nails
The Mayo Clinic says spoon nails (also known as koilonychia) are soft nails with raised edges and a contraction in the center, the center usually large enough to hold a drop of liquid. Spoon nails can be a sign of many conditions, including heart disease and hypothyroidism, so it’s worth mentioning to your healthcare provider.
7. You are irritable
Having an iron deficiency can make you feel… you may be more tired than usual, you may deal with headaches, and you may not feel like yourself. With that said, you may be more prone to being easily annoyed. But, again, this can be a difficult symptom to pin down. “Because the signs and symptoms are so vague and can be attributed to so many conditions, iron deficiency is often not diagnosed in its early stages,” says Cohen.
What to do if you have low iron levels
If you suspect you have low iron levels, it is important to speak to your doctor. “If you have any of these symptoms, it’s always a good idea to get checked out,” Cording says. “Nutrition deficiency is important to consider.”
Your doctor can order a basic lab test to check your red blood cells and hemoglobin levels — these will be low if you have an iron deficiency, says Cohen.
If you do, in fact, suffer from an iron deficiency, there are a few steps you can take to fix that. “If the deficiency is very mild, sometimes it helps to pay more attention to food sources,” Cording says. That could mean eating more beef and chicken, or if you’re a vegetarian, focus on eating things like tofu, spinach, and beans.
If your deficiency is more severe, your doctor may recommend that you take a supplement, says Cohen. It’s not a good idea to diagnose yourself with an iron deficiency and take iron supplements without talking to your doctor first. “Supplements do have side effects — constipation being the most common, [along with] Nausea and gastrointestinal upset, says Cohen. “The symptoms may also be due to another cause, so a supplement would just be a ‘bandage’ and cover the symptoms of a more serious condition.”
Cording stresses the importance of getting a medical exam if you suspect you have an iron deficiency. “Any time you don’t feel like yourself, it’s important to talk to your doctor,” she says.
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