7 unusual signs you could be low in iron

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Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
Ask Emma

19 December 2018

1 - Inflamed tongue

This is perhaps one of the stranger symptoms of iron deficiency and often it can be quite alarming to suddenly find your tongue swollen and noticeably paler. However, when you think about it, this bizarre sign does make sense, especially when you consider that your tongue is a muscle. 

You see your muscles rely on a protein named ‘myoglobin’ which is specifically found in red blood cells. In cases of iron deficiency though, when your red blood cells are weaker, it means that your muscles, including your tongue, are not getting the myoglobin they need. Since this symptom can often be attributed to a wide range of problems, including allergic reaction, I would keep an eye on any other signs and speak to your doctor just to be on the safe side!

2 – You’ve got the shivers

Struggling to stay warm despite everyone else around you sitting in shorts and tee-shirts? Feeling cold, especially in extremities such as your hands and feet can often be linked to anaemia, a condition that arises when your iron levels are extremely low. This symptom occurs as low iron levels often means there is a poor flow of oxygen through your body which can affect how you regulate and perceive temperatures.

3 – Heart palpitations

Heart palpitations can be scary to experience and often leave you feeling worried or nervous about your cardiovascular health. The good news is that palpitations aren’t always related to heart disease – sometimes they can occur due to stress but, in the case of iron deficiency, palpitations emerge once again due to low levels of red blood cells. If your body isn’t producing enough red blood cells then your heart has to work double time to make sure that enough oxygen is circulating your body which is where the aforementioned palpitations come into the picture. 

4 – Breathlessness

If you’re an active person then you may have noticed that you’re feeling a bit more breathless than usual. Similar to heart palpitations this sudden shortness of breath can be a cause for concern but again, a poor count of red blood cells is the problem. If the muscles in your body are struggling to get the oxygen-rich blood they need to thrive then your body will instinctively cause you to breathe more in an attempt to get more oxygen into your body. This means that physical activity, whether it’s going for a jog or climbing up stairs, will require more exertion and cause shortness of breath.

5 –Poor skin & hair

If you’ve noticed that the quality of your hair and skin has changed then it could be a sign that you’re running a bit low on iron. Did you know, for example, that ferratin (iron that has been stored in the body) is crucial for helping to promote hair growth? Unfortunately, when your iron levels are low though, your body will try to utilise other non-essential sources of the mineral, including the ferratin stored in your hair bulb. This can mean that your hair becomes weak and doesn’t experience the same rate of growth. 

When it comes to your skin, like all other areas of your body, its cells rely on a continuous and healthy supply of oxygen and, if this supply becomes weak or sluggish, it can get weaker. This means that your skin becomes more susceptible to dryness and more vulnerable to external pathogens – germs, bacteria and viral infections.

6 – Pica

There could be a chance that you’re not familiar with pica so I’m just going to go into a little bit of detail about what the condition actually is. Pica refers to food cravings for non-food components with little to no nutritional value – a few common cravings are for things such as chalk, coal, ice cubes or even clay. This condition can arise as a result of mental health problem such as OCD but often it appears in pregnant mothers too and those with nutritional deficiencies such as iron-based anaemia.

It’s thought that, when your levels of certain nutrients are extremely low and your diet is not providing you with the vitamins and minerals you need, your body will become desperate and seek them out elsewhere. Of course, this can be problematic and sometimes dangerous as non-food items are just that – they’re not meant to be consumed by humans and when they are, it can have some unpleasant repercussions for your digestive health.

7 – Poor immune system

Iron helps to carry oxygen to all the cells in your body, including your immune cells. Studies have found that healthy levels of iron are required for the proliferation of certain immune cells, including lymphocytes which help to protect against pathogens.1 It only makes sense then that, if you’re running low on iron, your immune system may also suffer too; this means that you may find yourself more susceptible to colds, flus and other infections. 

What can I do to improve my intake of iron?

It’s all very well discussing the symptoms of iron deficiency but the most important thing is how you go about treating it. In my blog, ‘What happens when you are low in iron?’ I discuss the further ramifications of having low levels of iron but I also mention how you can go about easing the problem in a few easy steps.

Step 1 – Improve your dietary intake: When it comes to iron deficiencies, often our diets are to blame. In recent years, vegan and vegetarian diets have soared in popularity and, while they can be extremely healthy, problems can arise if you don’t know what you’re doing. This is because iron is often found in meat-based sources such as beef, but this isn’t to say it doesn’t exist in plant form. Foods such as leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach, Swiss chard etc.), pumpkin seeds and even substitutes such as tofu all contain a decent amount of iron. Beetroot juice is another option that’s worth considering as beetroots are rich in vitamin C which can help to improve your absorption of iron. 

Step 2 –Limit your intake of foods that can inhibit your absorption of iron: Just as there are foods which are rich in iron and can improve your intake, there are also foods out there that can negatively impact your store of iron. Tea and coffee, for example, contain tannins which can inhibit your absorption of iron so even if you are eating the right foods, your body won’t be able to utilise any iron you gain from these properly. These types of foods aren’t always bad for you either – walnuts, dried beans and lentils are all good for your health but, similar to tea and coffee, they contain components that may hinder your iron absorption. Instead, try to focus on foods that are rich in vitamin C, which can actually help to promote your absorption of the mineral!

Step 3 – Consider a supplement: There are certain groups of people that will always be more vulnerable to iron deficiencies compared to others – menstruating women are a key example, especially if they suffer from heavy periods. That’s why sometimes a supplement will be necessary but ideally, you want one that’s going to be well absorbed and give you the right amount of iron that you need – not too much or too little. 

Step 4 – Speak to your doctor: Finally, if you suspect that your iron levels are low, it’s extremely important that you speak to your doctor. They will be able to carry out a blood test to analyse your iron levels but, in addition to this, ask them to measure your levels of ferratin (stored iron) too as this can also give a more in depth insight into what is going on. Your doctor will be able to then confirm your diagnosis and, depending on how low your levels are, guide you when it comes to further treatment.


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