Iron is an important dietary mineral that is involved in various bodily functions. It is commonly known for aiding the production of hemoglobin, a protein that helps red blood cells deliver oxygen throughout your body.
It also acts as a transport medium for electrons to travel within the cells and is needed for many enzymes to function normally.
Maintaining a healthy level of iron in your body is important, yet iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. If it is not controlled in time, it can lead to iron-deficiency anemia.
Some of the common causes of iron deficiency in adults are inadequate intake of iron through diet, chronic blood loss, increased need for iron by the body like during pregnancy, and an inability to properly absorb iron.
Women in their childbearing years are at higher risk, mainly due to loss of blood during menstruation. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, about 20 percent of women of childbearing age have iron-deficiency anemia.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the recommended daily dietary allowance for iron for 19- to 50-year-old females is 18 milligrams (mg).
During pregnancy, women should consume 27 mg of iron per day. On the other hand, the recommended daily dietary intake of iron for men is about 8 mg.
Insufficient iron can affect your body in many ways. It is important to be aware of its signs and symptoms, so that corrective measures can be taken right away.
Here are the top 10 signs and symptoms of iron deficiency.
1. Fatigue and Tiredness
Fatigue and tiredness are common in people who have a low iron level.
Iron is important for maintaining optimum levels of hemoglobin, which is the oxygen-carrying chemical in the bloodstream. Lack of oxygen in the body causes constant fatigue and tiredness.
A 2000 study published in Quality of Life Research suggests that iron deficiency is associated with decreased general health and well-being and increased fatigue.
Another study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2001 reports that dietary and supplement treatment of iron deficiency improved the general health and fatigue in Australian women of childbearing age.
In addition, a 2012 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal reports that iron supplementation in non-anemic menstruating women with low ferritin helps reduce fatigue. Ferritin is a chemical that aids the storage of iron in the blood.
If you are frequently tired and feeling fatigued, get your blood checked to find out whether you have an iron deficiency. Proper diagnosis and timely treatment will help reduce the symptoms quickly.
2. Shortness of Breath
Due to a low iron level, less oxygen reaches different parts of your body. When the body’s oxygen level is low, it will cause shortness of breath, no matter how deeply you breathe.
This shortness of breath occurs even while doing things that you’d normally handle just fine, such as climbing the stairs, taking a short walk or even carrying small objects. The breathlessness can be mild, moderate or severe, and breathing often returns to normal after a rest period.
If you need to puff for air more often, get your iron level checked to rule out the possibility of this nutrient deficiency.
Shortness of breath can also be due to a respiratory infection, chronic bronchitis, heart disease and allergies, all of which may require medical care.
3. Pale Skin
Another common sign associated with iron deficiency is pale skin or a washed-out appearance.
Due to a low iron level, your body is unable to manufacture sufficient hemoglobin. It’s the hemoglobin that gives your blood its red color and your skin its rosy hue.
As the iron deficiency worsens, your skin begins to lose its normal color and becomes pale. This sign is more prominent in people who have a lighter skin tone.
Irrespective of skin tone, a low iron level makes the inside of your lips, your gums and the inside of your bottom eyelids less red than usual.
If your skin starts looking paler than usual and you are not sick, consult a doctor to determine the cause.
4. Brittle Nails
If your nails look pale, fragile and brittle, it can be a possible sign of iron deficiency. Along with brittle nails, a concave or spoon-shaped depression in the nails can indicate an insufficient iron level in the body.
A low iron level hampers your body’s ability to produce enough hemoglobin, which helps carry oxygen throughout your system, including to your nails. This lack of oxygen prohibits the healthy growth of your nails.
A 2010 study published in Clinics in Dermatology reports that virtually every nutritional deficiency can affect the growth of the nails in some manner and iron is one of them.
Apart from nutritional deficiencies, aging, long-term use of nail polish and frequent exposure to water can lead to brittle nails.
5. Hair Loss
There are many possible causes for hair loss and iron deficiency is one of them. A low iron level sends your body into survival mode, during which it channels oxygen to support vital functions as opposed to less important functions like hair growth.
A 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology shows that iron deficiency has a much closer link to hair loss than most doctors realize. Adequate iron intake may be the key to restoring hair growth.
In fact, women with iron deficiency are at a risk of telogen hair loss, according to a 2009 study published in Acta Dermatovenerologica Croatica.
A recent 2013 study published in the Journal of Korean Medical Science supports previous studies and reports that iron deficiency can be a factor in developing or worsening female pattern hair loss, especially in premenopausal women.
To find out whether an iron deficiency is the cause of your hair loss, it is important to measure the amount of ferritin in the blood.
6. Craving Nonfood Substances
Pica is a condition in which a person has an unusual craving for non nutritive substances that can cause significant health risks. This condition can be sign of a low level of iron or other nutrients in the body.
In a 2010 study published in the Journal of Medical Case Reports, experts considered pica an important sign of iron deficiency that should never be ignored.
A recent 2014 study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that pregnant teens with significantly lower iron levels had cravings for ice, cornstarch, vacuum dust, baby powder, soap and other nonfood items.
If you are craving nonfood items, bring it to the attention of your doctor to find out the exact reason behind it.