Are you feeling rundown—even after having some downtime over the holidays? Do your legs feel “heavy,” or are you feeling a bit out of breath? If so, you may be dealing with a very common mineral deficiency: iron.
In the body, iron has the very important job of making hemoglobin.
Without enough hemoglobin in the blood, your tissues don’t receive enough oxygen. And without oxygen, your muscles and tissues don’t work as well… which leads to the tiredness you’re feeling.
Well, it’s more than just run-of-the-mill tiredness. It’s an “I-never-want-to-move-from-the-couch” kind of exhaustion. It’s amazing how one little deficiency can drain our energy so much!
What causes iron deficiencies?
Iron can be really hard to absorb sometimes. It needs a highly acidic environment in the stomach to ionize the iron. This ionized form can be absorbed in the small intestine.
Stress, stomach problems, and certain medications can inhibit this process.
Blood loss is another cause of iron deficiencies. You may be losing blood through a heavy menstrual cycle, intestinal bleeding, or surgery/internal bleeding.
How much do we really need?
We all need some iron in our diet every day, and pregnant women need the highest dose.
For healthy men, 8mg per day is all you need while menstruating women need closer to 18mg. Pregnant women need upwards of 27mg, which can be difficult to get from diet alone.
There are two types of iron: heme iron (found in animal products) and non-heme iron (found in plant-based foods).
Foods like beef, liver, oysters, beans, fortified cereals, and dark leafy greens are extra high in iron. Enjoy with a source of vitamin C to boost your absorption.
Low iron levels can be troublesome all over the body. Here are five common—yet surprising—symptoms of low iron.
Fatigue from low iron can feel mild or like all of your energy has been sucked out of you. This is due to the lack of oxygen being brought to your muscles and other tissues. Your cells are feeling just as worn out as you are.
2. Pale Skin
Your extra pasty pale skin may be due to the low amount of sunlight available in January and February, but it could also be a sign your iron level is low.
Hemoglobin is what gives your cheeks a lovely rosy glow. You can also check the inside of your eyelid. If the tissue there is paler than usual then you may have low iron levels right now.
3. Shortness of breath
Are you huffing and puffing after climbing a few stairs? Do you find yourself out of breath easily? This is also a sign of low iron.
Low levels of hemoglobin in your blood deprive your muscles of much-needed oxygen. Your muscles then signal your lungs to bring in more oxygen, which is why you’re breathing so hard with easy activity.
4. Hair Loss
Unfortunately, a common cause of hair loss is low iron levels. If your hair follicles don’t receive enough oxygen, they shut down hair production until that’s remedied.
We usually lose 100 strands of hair a day, so if you’re seeing more hair than usual on your pillow or if your hair feels thinner, it could be a sign your iron level is low.
And now for the weirdest symptom…
5. Pica – a craving for ice or even dirt
The weird cravings associated with pica, including the craving to eat dirt, ice, or clay, can be a sign of an iron deficiency. It’s also associated with early pregnancy cravings.
While I’m all for giving in to my chocolate cravings, this isn’t a craving to submit to. Eating some seemingly “tasty” looking clay may be toxic and could lower the absorption of iron in your diet.
If you’re feeling some of these low iron symptoms, then it’s time to get your iron level tested. It’s a quick blood test that you can get through your friendly-neighborhood GP.
When to supplement
If you know your iron level is low, it’s time to head to your favorite health food store to pick up a good, absorbable food-based ironsupplement.
If you suspect your iron level is low but can’t get to your GP, be sure to grab a food-based non-heme iron supplement, one with all of the co-factors needed to absorb that iron.
I cannot stress this enough: if you’re feeling extra tired and not like your normal self, please look into it to find the underlying cause. Low iron levels are a common cause of a bad case of the “blahs” and can be fixed pretty easily.
It’s time to get your energy back!
Lisa Kilgour is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist (RHN), founder of LisaKilgour.com, and a faculty member at the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition.