Iron is a mineral that’s part of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen from the lungs and throughout the body. If your body doesn’t have enough iron, it won’t get enough oxygen, and your cells (which are powered by oxygen) won’t be able to function efficiently.
“If you’re mildly low on iron, or slightly anemic, you can experience frequent fatigue, weakness and take longer to complete tasks,” says Mary Ann Skoures, M.D., a family medicine physician with Henry Ford Health. If you’re chronically or severely low on iron, it can lead to several side effects:
- a pale complexion
- shortness of breath
- brittle fingernails
- cold hands and feet
- frequent illness
- restless legs syndrome
- cravings to eat ice, clay, dirt, chalk, or paper (a condition called pica)
- an irregular heartbeat and heart palpitations
Here, Dr. Skoures shares reasons why you could be iron deficient and what to do about it.
Why You Could Be Iron Deficient
To get tested for iron deficiency, your doctor will draw blood to measure your hemoglobin levels. The normal hemoglobin range for women is about 12 to 15 grams per deciliter. For men, it’s 13.5 to 17.5 grams per deciliter. If you test below the normal range, your doctor may order an ultrasound, endoscopy, or colonoscopy to check for internal bleeding. If that’s not the cause, there are additional reasons you could be iron deficient:
- Underlying digestive issues. If you have untreated Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or other digestive issues, your body may not be properly absorbing nutrients, says Dr. Skoures. Crohn’s can also cause bleeding in the digestive tract, leading to a loss of iron. If you experience frequent constipation, bloating, stomach pains or loose stools, head to your doctor.
- You’re pregnant. “Your body needs twice the amount of iron to support a growing baby, so if you’re not getting enough iron, you could become deficient,” says Dr. Skoures. Pregnant women are often recommended iron supplements. If you’re pregnant, heed the advice of your doctor or midwife.
- You’re menstruating. Women who menstruate lose blood every month, so it’s not uncommon for them to be slightly anemic, especially those who have heavier menstrual periods, says Dr. Skoures.
- You’re not eating the rights foods. If you’re on a meat-free diet, your body may not be getting enough iron. “Although plant sources of iron are abundant (like spinach and legumes) this type of iron, called non-heme iron, is not as easily absorbed by the body as iron from meat and fish sources, which is called heme iron,” says Dr. Skoures.
- You have a genetic form of anemia. Some types of anemia are hereditary, like sickle-cell anemia and thalassemia. Genetic forms of anemia may require long-term management under a doctor’s supervision.
What You Can Do To Absorb More Iron
If you’re experiencing worrisome symptoms, it’s always best to see your doctor first, whether for an in-person or virtual visit. Here are other ways to help increase your iron:
- Don’t eat polyphenols with iron-rich meals. Polyphenols are naturally occurring compounds found in a variety of foods like dark chocolate, red wine, berries, coffee, green tea, turmeric and more. They’re very healthy—they contain tons of antioxidants, and you should load up on them—but research suggests that if you consume polyphenols with non-heme (plant-sourced) iron, they can bind to hemoglobin and inhibit iron absorption. If you aren’t iron deficient, you don’t need to worry about this, but if you are, try having your iron-packed meals two hours after eating or drinking polyphenols.
- Eat vitamin C with iron. Conversely, vitamin C-rich foods like oranges and lemons can help increase iron absorption, which is why doctors often recommend gulping down iron supplements with a glass of orange juice, says Dr. Skoures.
- Take a supplement. While iron supplements shouldn’t replace iron-rich foods, you can try taking a supplement in addition to eating a healthy diet.
- If you’re vegan, up the amount of iron-rich plant food that you eat. Look for foods enriched with iron, and try to increase the amount of iron you get from plant sources, like spinach, lentils, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, and fortified cereals.
To find a doctor or registered dietitian at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Mary Ann Skoures, M.D., is a family medicine physician with Henry Ford Health. She sees patients at Henry Ford Wyandotte Family Medicine in Allen Park.