An iron deficiency can make you feel constantly tired, lack energy, have a pale complexion, or suffer from frequent headaches. A lack of iron in the body can be caused when you don’t consume enough iron-rich foods when your body can’t absorb enough iron, or you have blood loss. If your body doesn’t have enough iron, it can’t make enough hemoglobin – part of the red blood cells that carry oxygen through the body. The result of an iron deficiency can by anemia, tiredness, and shortness of breath.
If you have low iron levels, then it’s important to check your diet to make sure that it contains enough iron. One of the best ways to increase your iron level is to consume iron-rich foods. The best foods to boost levels of iron in your body are leafy green vegetables, beef, chicken liver, and oysters. It is also possible to prevent iron deficiency by taking iron supplements. However, if you decide to use iron supplements, it’s important to speak with your doctor who will check if you have low iron. This is to prevent the side effects of having too much iron in your body.
Iron deficiencies often affect infants and children, women who lose a lot of blood through menstruation, vegetarians, and frequent blood donors.
In this article, you will learn about how to recognize the signs of an iron deficiency. You can also find out what causes low iron levels in the blood and how to increase iron levels naturally. This information can help you avoid the health consequences of too little iron and help prevent iron deficiency anemia.
Signs of Iron Deficiency
In many people, the signs of an iron deficiency can be so mild that it goes unnoticed. Many people put feelings of tiredness, weakness, or headaches down to the stresses of daily life. According to the Mayo Clinic, other signs that your body is lacking iron are:
- Pale skin
- Chest pains
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Cold hands and feet
- Brittle nails
- Poor appetite
- Inflammation of your tongue
If you suspect an iron deficiency in yourself or your child, you should see a doctor who will perform a blood test to check iron levels. Other possible tests to check for anemia are MCHC blood test (concentration of hemoglobin in blood cells) and RDW blood test. Your doctor will also make sure that if you have low iron levels, these aren’t caused by a more serious medical condition like internal bleeding.
Causes of iron deficiency
There are a number of factors that can cause an iron deficiency leading to anemia. Although anyone can suffer from iron deficiency anemia, there are some people who are more at risk than others.
Not getting enough iron from your diet. Your body needs a constant supply of iron to keep your blood healthy and circulating properly. A lack of iron from your diet will cause a deficiency, and in severe cases lead to anemia.
Heavy menstrual periods can be a cause of iron deficiency in many women. The National Health Service (NHS) says that women are at risk of low levels of iron especially if they have heavy bleeding over consecutive menstrual cycles. This results in the loss of more red blood cells than the body can produce.
Pregnancy can be a cause of developing iron deficiency. The NHS explains that during pregnancy extra oxygen and nutrients are required for the baby’s blood supply. This can often cause low iron levels.
Abnormal bleeding associated with some diseases can cause an iron deficiency to develop. Dr. Todd Gersten, a hematologist from the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, says that stomach ulcers or cancers in the digestive tract can cause internal bleeding leading to anemia. The long-term use of aspirin, ibuprofen or other medicines can thin the stomach lining leading to bleeding and a loss of iron.
If your body can’t absorb enough iron from your diet, then you could suffer from the symptoms of a lack of iron. This can be caused by various conditions like celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, or inflammation of the esophagus.
HOW MUCH IRON DO WE NEED TO CONSUME A DAY?
It’s important to eat a well-balanced diet to get the required number of vitamins and minerals to keep your body in good health. According to doctors at the National Institutes of Health, the recommended daily intake of iron is as follows:
- Infants 7 – 12 months: 11 mg.
- Children ages 1 – 13: 7 mg – 10 mg.
- Women ages 14 – 50: 15 mg – 18 mg.
- Women who are pregnant: 27 mg.
- Men ages 14 – 50: 8 mg – 11 mg.
- Men and women over 50: 8 mg.
How to Improve Iron Absorption from Food
Even if you are eating enough foods containing iron, you could still have an iron deficiency if your body can’t absorb enough of this mineral.
Dr. Christine Mikstas on WebMD says that consuming foods containing vitamin C along with iron-rich foods can help you get more iron from your food. Some rich sources of vitamin C are green leafy vegetables, broccoli, and bell peppers.
What can interfere with iron absorption?
Some foods, although healthy in themselves, can actually interfere with iron absorption. Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that calcium-rich and fiber-containing foods, spinach, eggs, and milk can decrease the amount of iron the body absorbs.
For example, Oxalic acid found in many green vegetables may delay the absorption of iron. Spinach is very rich in oxalic acid which binds to the iron and interferes with iron absorption.
Also phytic acid, which is found mostly in whole grains, may interfere with iron absorption. So although whole grains are a good source of iron themselves, the phytic acid they contain can stop your body absorbing iron from other foods and supplements.
Dr. Mikstas also recommends avoiding drinking coffee or tea along with iron-rich foods.5 Drinking tea, coffee, and even eating chocolate interferes with iron absorption due to their high content of polyphenols, as well as calcium which is found in dairy products.
How to Increase Iron Levels in Your Blood
One of the best ways to avoid an iron deficiency is to get enough iron from a varied and well-balanced diet. Depending on the cause and severity of your low iron levels, you may also need to supplement your diet with iron.
Here are the best ways to increase iron levels in your blood to address an iron deficiency or prevent levels of iron in your blood dropping.
Incorporate iron-rich foods in your diet
DIETARY IRON IS FOUND IN TWO FORMS:
- Heme iron. This type of iron is found in lean red meat, poultry, and fish. Heme iron is easily absorbed into the body.
- Nonheme iron. Nonheme iron is poorly absorbed into the body. Cereals, broccoli, legumes, brown rice, nuts, and seeds all contain nonheme iron.
Doctors from the Mayo Clinic recommend consuming food rich in vitamin C along with nonheme iron-rich foods. This will increase the amount of iron your body gets from cereals, beans, and other nonheme iron vegetables.
ANIMAL SOURCES OF IRON
Dietary sources of iron from animals contain heme iron. This is easily absorbed into the body and is the most common source of iron from the diet to help to increase iron levels. According to Dr. Christine Mikstas on WebMD, iron-rich foods from animal sources are:
- Chicken liver
- Seafood like clams, mussels, or oysters
- Canned sardines in oil
Other sources of iron from animal products, but with significantly less iron per ounce are poultry, fish, ham, and veal.
VEGETABLE SOURCES OF IRON
Iron derived from plants is nonheme iron and is poorly absorbed into the body. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, then it’s important to supplement your diet with vitamin C.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that vitamin C has an enhancing effect on nonheme iron absorption in the body. The researchers found that vitamin C can help to increase iron bioavailability by up to 7%.
Dr. Mikstas on WebMD says that good plant and vegetable sources of iron are:
- Cooked beans
- Pumpkin or sesame seeds
- Dried apricots
- Baked potatoes
- Split peas
- Brown rice
- Buy iron-enriched foods
Many people who want to increase their levels of iron, especially if they don’t eat animal products, buy iron-enriched foods. For example, many breakfast bowls of cereal and bread are fortified with iron and can help boost your iron levels.
The journal Nutrients reported that in countries where iron deficiency anemia is a major problem, iron-enriched foods are used. The introduction of foods fortified with iron has helped to reduce complications of anemia in children.
COOK WITH CAST IRON COOKWARE
Another way to increase your iron levels naturally and help prevent the symptoms of anemia is to use cast iron cookware. When you heat food in a metal container, some of the metal leaches into the food and affects it. This is one reason why you should never cook with aluminum cookware.
The British Dietetic Association recommended cooking with iron pots to help reduce iron deficiencies. Researchers found that cooking food in iron cookware increases the hemoglobin concentration in people with iron deficiencies. The study concluded that using iron pots for preparing food is a way to reduce iron deficiency.
BOOST IRON LEVELS WITH SUPPLEMENTS
Taking iron supplements can help to prevent anemia and increase iron levels. PubMed Health reported on reviews showing that supplements containing iron can help women who are anemic due to heavy menstrual bleeding or who are pregnant.
To reduce the side effects of iron supplementation like constipation, nausea, abdominal discomfort and change in stool color. The report suggests that some women take iron supplement intermittently. However, in comparison with daily supplementation, taking iron supplements intermittently is less effective in preventing or controlling anemia.
CHECK VITAMIN B12 LEVELS
Anemia can also develop due to vitamin B12 deficiency, as vitamin B12 is essential to make red blood cells and carry oxygen through your body.
Dr. Gregory Thompson on WebMD says that as well as causing anemia, a vitamin B12 deficiency can also lead to nerve damage and affect memory and thinking. Drinking alcohol and some medicines can also cause vitamin B12 levels to drop.
Good sources of vitamin B12 that can help prevent anemia are beef liver, clams, rainbow trout, chicken breast, and fortified cereals with B12.