When you’re feeling tired, weak, out of breath, and looking a little pale with cold hands and feet, your first thought may not be that you’re suffering from an iron deficiency—but these could be signs that you are. We talked to Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies to learn what iron deficiency means, symptoms that you might have it, and what to do about an iron deficiency.
What is iron deficiency? When you have iron deficiency, it means you’re not getting enough iron in your diet, which has a negative impact. “One of the main rules of iron is to transport oxygen,” says Palinski-Wade. “If you’re deficient in iron, you start to see fatigue set in. If you’re somebody who’s active, you might notice more shortness of breath or even early muscle fatigue.”
Over time, if your diet is deficient in iron for a few months or longer, that can lead to full-blown anemia. Iron deficiency anemia is a condition that means you’re lacking healthy blood cells to carry oxygen to tissue and that’s why you look tired and pale. It’s important to recognize early signs of iron deficiency to nip this in the bud and get checked out by your doctor for their treatment recommendations.
Signs of Iron Deficiency
You feel unusually tired. And the fatigue isn’t just because you started a new Fitbit Challenge with your friends. “Maybe you’re starting to fall asleep earlier or you get a good night’s sleep, but just don’t feel like you have any energy,” says Palinski-Wade.
You’re out of breath. When you’ve been working out regularly and are surprised to find you’re suddenly getting winded, that could be a sign of iron deficiency. “Because iron carries oxygen, shortness of breath is a sign you need more iron, if you’re somebody who’s healthy and generally in good shape,” says Palinski-Wade. When normally you can jog 30 minutes without a problem and all of a sudden, 10 minutes in, you feel like your legs are dead or you have a fast heartbeat or chest pain, that could be a sign that your cells aren’t getting enough oxygen.
You feel dizzy. Stand up and feeling lightheaded? Dizziness and headaches are more signs you may have an iron deficiency.
Your hands and feet are cold. Sure, you might be tempted to blame it on the season, but if you notice this chilly change—and your hands and feet aren’t usually frigid—it’s worth bringing up to your doctor.
Your looks are taking a hit. Some people notice brittle nails, or dry, limp hair, or that their skin is noticeably dry. Many people with an iron deficiency tend to notice they look paler than usual. Those could be indicators that you need to eat more iron-rich foods.
You’re experiencing restless leg syndrome. If you’re experiencing some of the symptoms above and your legs are restless when you lie down, mention this to your physician. Restless leg syndrome is more common in someone who has an iron deficiency.
How to treat iron deficiency
Most of the time, you can treat it by getting more whole foods in your diet because your body can utilize them better than relying on a supplement as a quick fix, says Palinski-Wade. If you’re experiencing some of these signs and ramp up the amount of iron in your diet for a few days, those symptoms should go away on their own, she says.
Eat more iron-rich foods like red meat, poultry, pork, black beans, kidney beans, peas, dark, leafy greens, and nuts and seeds.
Just know that with plant-based iron, your body doesn’t absorb it as well as heme iron that comes from animals, says Palinski-Wade. “I always encourage people, when they’re eating iron, to have a source of vitamin C at the same time because that enhances the absorption of the iron,” she recommends. “If you’re eating a spinach salad because dark and green leafy vegetables are a source of iron, put sliced strawberries or mandarin oranges on top to help the absorption.”
Other examples of vitamin C-rich foods to eat with your iron-rich foods include guava, red bell pepper, kiwi fruit, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cabbage.
Iron supplements on a whole can be a little bit disruptive to the gastrointestinal system; they can cause constipation, Palinski-Wade says. So if you don’t have to rely on a supplement to treat the deficiency and you can meet your needs through food, try to solve your problem that way first.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.