How to recognise the symptoms of iron deficiency and effectively treat it

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Iron deficiency can be treated by eating iron-rich foods like beef and spinach. BURCU ATALAY TANKUT/Getty Images
  • Iron deficiency can cause symptoms like fatigue, cold hands and feet, and irregular heartbeats.
  • People at high risk of iron deficiency include vegans, pregnant people, or people with cancer.
  • To raise your iron levels, take a supplement or eat iron-rich foods like spinach and tofu.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

Iron is an essential mineral found in foods such as chocolate, meat, spinach, and potatoes. When a person doesn’t have enough iron, they can experience fatigue, lightheadedness, and an increase in blood temperature.

Here’s what you need to know about iron’s role in the body, iron deficiency, and how to treat it.

What does iron do?

Iron is a mineral absorbed into the body through food and supplements. It is essential for blood production as it contributes to the creation of hemoglobin, a part of red blood cells responsible for transporting oxygen.

Maintaining adequate levels of iron keeps the body functioning properly. “If the amount of iron is low in your body, it will not be able to produce enough hemoglobin, leading to iron deficiency anemia,” says Bansari Acharya, a registered dietitian-nutritionist.

Medical term: Anemia is a condition occurring when a person doesn’t have enough red blood cells to properly carry oxygen through the body. Anemia can cause symptoms such as fatigue, dizziness, and pale skin. There are types of anemia not caused by iron deficiency.

About 1.5 to 2 billion people worldwide are iron deficient. In the United States, approximately 10 million people are iron deficient, and five million people have iron deficiency anemia.

Symptoms of iron deficiency

Understanding signs of iron deficiency can help you determine if you have the condition. According to Acharya, mild symptoms of iron deficiency include:

  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Lack of concentration

According to Nicole DeMasi, MS, RDN, CDCES, a registered dietitian-nutritionist, severe symptoms of iron deficiency include:

  • Pica, craving non-food items such as clay or paper
  • Severe fatigue
  • A rapid or irregular heartbeat

Causes of iron deficiency

Iron deficiency occurs when you consume less than your daily recommended intake of iron.

The daily recommended intake of iron varies based on age and gender:

Some of the common causes of deficiency include:

  • Little to no iron in your diet
  • Blood loss, from an ulcer, heavy period, or other cause
  • Difficulty absorbing iron due to recent bypass surgery or a gastrointestinal disease

According to DeMasi, individuals at a higher risk of an iron deficiency include:

  • People with heavy periods ormenorrhagia, a condition in which your period lasts longer than seven days, leading to a higher amount of iron lost each cycle.
  • Pregnant people, as their iron need increases but intake may not.
  • People with cancer have a 29% to 46% prevalence of iron deficiency. For colon cancer patients, the risk increases up to 60%. This risk may come from chronic blood loss or chemotherapy-induced anemia.
  • Vegans because their diets exclude foods, such as meat, that are high in iron.

Diagnosis

“One of the first symptoms of iron deficiency is fatigue,” says Acharya. “If you find yourself becoming excessively tired constantly even after adequate rest and limited physical activity, you should go see a doctor.” If a person is experiencing any symptoms of iron deficiency, you should visit your doctor to determine the cause.

A blood test can quickly determine an iron deficiency. It can check iron count, iron-binding capacity, and hemoglobin levels, says Acharya. When testing hemoglobin levels, possible iron deficiency occurs below 12 grams per deciliter for women and below 13.5 grams per deciliter for men.

Iron deficiency treatment

To raise iron levels, you can eat more iron-containing foods, such as:

  • Fortified breakfast cereals: 18mg per serving
  • White beans, canned: 8 mg per one cup
  • Lentils: 3 mg per ½ cup
  • Spinach, boiled and drained: 3 mg per ½ cup
  • Tofu, firm: 3 mg per ½ cup
  • Potatoes, with skin: 2 mg per medium potato

General advice: In addition to dietary changes, or if you already eat an iron-rich diet, supplements can help treat a deficiency. Supplements are usually prescribed in doses of up to 150 to 200 mg daily.

People who are high risk, but not yet iron deficient or who have just gotten over an iron deficiency may be prescribed 60 to 100mg daily, says DeMasi.

Insider’s takeaway

Iron deficiency occurs due to issues such as excessive bleeding and insufficient iron in your diet. Symptoms of an iron deficiency include fatigue, cold hands and feet, and a rapid or irregular heartbeat. Iron deficiency can be easily diagnosed by a blood test and can be treated by adding iron to a person’s diet and taking supplements.

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