Although there are several possible causes of anemia, iron deficiency anemia is the most common type worldwide affecting about 20% of women, 50% of pregnant women, and 3% of men.(1) As the name suggests, iron deficiency anemia occurs when the blood lacks enough iron to make hemoglobin, which healthy red blood cells require to carry oxygen to all of the body's tissues.
Some common causes of iron deficiency include inadequate iron intake through diet, poor absorption due to celiac or inflammatory bowel disease, and slow chronic blood loss internally, such as from a peptic ulcer or colon polyp. Women are at higher risk of iron deficiency due to increased requirements during pregnancy and monthly blood loss through menstrual periods. Initially, iron deficiency may be mild and cause no symptoms. In fact, the early signs of iron deficiency in women may be overlooked as just a normal part of our busy modern lives. But if not corrected over time, the signs of iron deficiency anemia intensify. Here are the most common iron deficiency signs and symptoms to watch for:
Iron Deficiency Signs and Symptoms:
- Unusual fatigue - When the body doesn’t have enough hemoglobin, tissues and muscles don’t get enough oxygen to work effectively, resulting in fatigue and muscle weakness.
- Pale skin and dry, damaged hair - Decreased oxygen delivery to the skin and scalp can result in pale complexion, including the lips, gums and inner lining of the lower eyelid, as well as dry, brittle hair and nails.
- Shortness of breath can occur as the lungs attempt to compensate for the body tissues low levels of oxygen.
- Heart palpitations can occur as the heart attempts to keep up with peripheral demands for freshly oxygenated blood.
- Headache, dizziness or lightheadedness may be signs of decreased oxygen delivery to the brain.
- Cold hands and feet due to reduced circulation to the extremities.
- Restless legs have been associated with iron deficiency, among other possible causes.
- Inflammation or soreness of the tongue, known as atrophic glossitis, may be a sign of certain nutritional deficiencies, including iron.
- “Spoon-shaped,” concave nails are most often a sign of long-standing iron deficiency anemia, as the nails soften and curl inward from the sides.
- Cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice, dirt or clay (a condition known as pica) may be related to iron deficiency.
Iron deficiency anemia can usually be corrected with iron supplementation. However, taking excessive iron when you are not deficient can be harmful to the liver, so it’s not a good idea to self-diagnose based on iron deficiency signs. It’s important to see your doctor to test for anemia and rule out any hidden cause of iron deficiency, such as gastrointestinal bleeding.
The general recommendation for iron deficiency anemia is to eat iron rich foods, such as red meat, liver, seafood, legumes and spinach. It is often recommended to eat these alongside foods rich in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, strawberries or broccoli, to help promote iron absorption. For optimal absorption it’s best to consume iron at a different time from coffee, tea, milk or other calcium rich foods which can interfere with iron absorption.
Iron supplements may be helpful if your doctor recommends them. To reduce stomach irritation, nausea and constipation, look for a supplement with a gentle but highly absorbable form of iron, such as an amino acid chelate. A supplement that provides Vitamin C together with iron can simplify your regimen and help optimize absorption.
Vital Nutrients offers the amino acid chelate Iron aspartate along with Vitamin C in multiple iron supplements for women, including Iron Plus C, Multi-Nutrients with Iron & Iodine, and Pre-Natal Multi.
The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.