Can having low iron levels affect your sleep?

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Marianna Kilburn
Qualified Life Coach
@MariannaKilburn
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18 December 2018

What happens if you don’t get enough iron? 

Iron is an extremely important mineral for your body, especially when it comes to the formation of red blood cells which are responsible for transporting oxygen around the body. This means that if your body doesn’t have enough iron, your production of red blood cells can be affected which in turns means certain areas of your body won’t get the oxygen they need to thrive.

Naturally, a number of symptoms can arise as a result of low iron levels such as fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, weak hair, skin and nails and, unfortunately, certain types of people are more likely to be vulnerable than others. In her blog ‘What happens when you are low in iron?’ our Nutritionist Emma delves into more detail about the symptoms of iron deficiency and who is more likely to be susceptible so here I’ll try and keep things brief.

Who is vulnerable?

  • Women: Unfortunately, women are susceptible to iron deficiency throughout and beyond their menstruating years, especially if they suffer from heavy periods or are pregnant. In fact, it’s estimated that around 1 in 5 women of child-bearing age will suffer from anaemia!1 
  • Children: Children need plenty of iron to grow up strong and healthy, however, young children that drink a lot of cow’s milk may be at risk as too much milk can inhibit their ability to absorb iron properly
  • Vegans and vegetarians: Animal-derived foods such as beef are often the prime source of iron in most people’s diets and, sometimes, vegan and vegetarians may struggle to find plant-based alternatives
  • Crohn’s sufferers: If your body struggles to absorb certain nutrients, such as iron, then naturally you’ll find yourself quickly becoming deficient, as is the case in 60-80% of Crohn’s sufferers
  • Those with underactive thyroids: It’s been found that many sufferers of hypothyroidism are also afflicted with anaemia, possibly because when not enough of the T3 hormone is produced, it can affect your level of stomach acid meaning that your body isn’t properly able to access your reserves of iron.  

How does iron deficiency impact your sleep?

Okay, so low iron levels are generally not good for your body as a whole but, in more specific terms, how do they impact your sleep? Well, the truth is that effects of iron deficiency are so direct when it comes to your sleep patterns – instead, the symptoms have a more indirect influence which could potentially cause problems. Below I’m going to examine three of the main problems that iron deficiency can present and how they can inhibit your ability to get a good night’s sleep.

#1 – Fatigue is a leading symptom of iron-deficiency!

You’ve probably heard me mention this symptom a couple of times already but here I’m going to go into slightly more detail. Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of iron deficiency and for good reason! If your body is struggling to transport oxygen around your body then your energy levels are going to suffer. Now, you might be thinking that surely, the more tired you are, the easier it will be for you to fall asleep at bedtime but, unfortunately, fatigue doesn’t always work this way.

This is because there’s a difference between feeling fatigued and feeling sleepy – sleepiness is a precursor to sleep whereas fatigue or tiredness is not. I explore this difference a little bit more in my blog, ‘Can you be too tired to sleep?’ but simply put, you can go to bed feeling exhausted and still find it difficult to sleep, as is frequently the case if you’re feeling overtired. Having an iron-deficiency may not cause insomnia or sleep problems but it can make you feel exhausted and overtired, which in turn may hinder your efforts to fall asleep in the first place!

#2 – Low iron levels can often increase feelings of anxiety

Anxiety is definitely not a friend as far as your sleep patterns are concerned, in fact quite the opposite. When you feel anxious, it stimulates your sympathetic nervous system, plunging your body into ‘fight or flight’ mode. Once this happens, your production of cortisol will increase and, correspondingly, your levels of melatonin, the sleep hormone, will decrease making you feel more awake and jittery – not ideal if you’re trying to drift off!

It’s believed now that iron deficiency can sometimes encourage this tricky emotion as, if your body and brain aren’t getting the oxygen they need, your sympathetic nervous system is going to respond. There’s also some evidence to suggest that, without a sufficient amount of iron, problems with neurotransmitter signalling and the formation of myelin, nerve insulation, can arise, potentially causing other cognitive issues.3 

#3 – RLS can be caused by insufficient levels of iron

RLS, or Restless Leg Syndrome, occurs when you experience a strong desire to move your legs when you’re supposed to be resting and it can sometimes be accompanied by an itchy or unusual crawling sensation. This can understandably be quite distracting if you’re trying to sleep (not to mention it can easily upset your partner too!) and often RLS is linked to nutritional deficiencies such as low magnesium and low iron. 

In the case of iron, again its role in your cognitive function is of importance. As I’ve mentioned, iron can help with supporting the action of neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Dopamine is especially important for RLS as it maintains muscle activity and movement but, if you’re not getting enough dopamine, it can result in involuntary spasms. At night, iron and dopamine levels can take a dip, which normally isn’t too problematic but, if your iron levels are already low it may have a knock-on effect on dopamine, causing RLS to occur.4 

How can I raise my iron levels?

1 – Eat more iron-rich foods 

If your iron levels are lacking then the most obvious thing to do would be to include more iron-rich foods in your diet. If you’re vegan or vegetarian though, this may seem a bit daunting at first but don’t worry! There are plenty of plant-based options for you to choose from – leafy greens such as spinach and kale are good choices here as are pumpkin seeds and lentils. Incorporating these types of foods into your eating routine should be quite simple but, if you need some inspiration, I personally love whipping up a veg-packed curry such as this easy Chickpea & Spinach Curry or even a Coconut, Spinach & Red Lentil Dhal.

2 – Avoid caffeinated drinks

There’s a good chance that you’re regularly drinking either tea or coffee, both of which contain a good amount of caffeine. In small amount, a little caffeine is unlikely to do you any real harm but if you’re averaging more than three cups a day then it can start to have an impact. One reason for this is that caffeine can act as a diuretic, so it’s capable of upsetting your digestive system however, caffeine also contains polyphenols. Now, polyphenols, in the right amount, are actually extremely beneficial and act as antioxidants but, it is possible to have too much of a good thing and when it comes to polyphenols, too many can inhibit your absorption of iron!

3 – Be aware of phytic acid

The name might sound a bit sinister but phytic acid is actually a completely natural substance that is often found in plant seeds, working as an antioxidant. However, its influence on nutrient absorption has gained it an unsavoury reputation and it is often regarded as an ‘anti-nutrient.’ While this probably isn’t justified, when it comes to improving your absorption of iron, it may be worth avoiding foods that are rich in phytic acid, such as walnuts, almonds, cereal and soy.

4 – Consider a supplement

How much iron your body needs each day can vary depending on factors such as age, sex and weight but, broadly speaking, most of us are recommended to get around 8-15mg a day, with women generally requiring more iron than men. Iron can be found in a wide variety of foods so normally sourcing this isn’t a problem, however, if you’re really struggling to cope with iron deficiency either due to heavy periods or another problem, you could try a supplement such as BetterYou’s Daily Oral Iron Spray. Available with our friends over at Jan de Vries, this spray is a particularly potent option as, rather than having to be broken down in your digestive tract, it is instead absorbed straight into your bloodstream, cutting out the middle man. 

5 – Remember vitamin C!

If you’re trying to boost your iron intake, it’s important that you look to your intake of vitamin C too. Vitamin C is an extremely crucial nutrient in its own right – you need plenty of antioxidant vitamin C to help support your immune system, skin, muscles and joints. This vitamin also serves another purpose though – it helps to maintain a healthy absorption of iron. Therefore, if you’re worried about suffering from a deficiency it might be best to look to this first!

1https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/iron-deficiency-anemia#Risk-Factors

2https://drbrighten.com/hypothyroidism-iron-deficiency-4-steps-boost-iron/

3https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/evolutionary-psychiatry/201511/heavy-metal-iron-and-the-brain

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