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6 Signs of an Iron Deficiency You Should Never Ignore

Iron deficiency isn't just a problem vegetarians should be concerned about — it can affect omnivores as well.

If your body is deficient in any vitamin or mineral, you'll see clear signs that tell you something is off. And if you are iron deficient, it can come with some pretty significant symptoms.

"Iron is an essential component of many proteins and enzymes that support important metabolic functions like transport of oxygen, energy production, and DNA synthesis," says Sonya Angelone, MS, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "[Iron] is needed for proper growth and development in hemoglobin (a protein that carries oxygen from the lungs to all the body), myoglobin (a protein that carries oxygen to the muscles), cytochromes (important for energy production), and peroxides (part of the immune system)."

Having enough iron in your body therefore helps it run properly, gives you energy, and keeps your immune system strong.

However, iron deficiency is extremely common.

"Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world mainly affecting children and women of childbearing age, pregnant women, and people with certain medical conditions," says Angelone.

Adds Amber Pankonin, MS, RD, LMNT, registered dietitian, and owner of The Stirlist, "A lack of iron can lead to anemia. However, there is a difference between iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anemia. A person could be iron deficient without feeling any symptoms, but iron deficiency anemia can impact important organs in the body."

One of the main reasons you may be iron deficient is if you're not eating the right foods. "Iron is an essential mineral. That means the body does not make it, so it has to be obtained by eating iron-rich foods," says Pankonin.

The signs of iron deficiency

Here are 6 signs you may be struggling with an iron deficiency.

Fatigue or tiredness.

woman tired work

You may feel tired if you have an iron deficiency because your body needs iron to make hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein found in red blood cells and is responsible for carrying oxygen around the body. Without enough oxygen reaching your body, you won't have as much energy. "Microcytic anemia is a condition where iron stores are so low that hemoglobin synthesis and red blood cell formation are impaired," says Angelone. "A serum ferritin (iron storage form) of less than 30 mcg/L suggests iron deficiency and less than 10 mcg/L suggests iron deficiency anemia."

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Skin and nail issues.

brittle nail problem iron deficiency

"Pale skin and brittle/spoon-shaped or peeling nails are a sign of not enough hemoglobin to carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body, including your nails (fingernails and toenails)," says Jerlyn Jones, MS, MPA, RDN, LD, CLT, registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of The Lifestyle Dietitian, LLC, and spokesperson, for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Shortness of breath.

shortness of breath

"Hemoglobin, which contains iron, helps carry oxygen throughout the body," says Pankonin. "Iron also plays a similar role in myoglobin, which is a protein in muscle cells that can help carry oxygen from red blood cells to skeletal and heart muscle. If iron deficiency develops, this might cause shortness of breath and fatigue." Iron deficiency isn't the only thing that is behind your fatigue; there's also these 10 Reasons You're Always Tired That Have Nothing to Do With Sleep.

Glossitis (inflamed tongue)

man checking out tongue health problem mirror

"Glossitis is a symptom of low iron. Depleted levels of iron in the blood may result in low levels of myoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that's important for muscle health, including the tongue's muscle tissue," says Jones.

Lack of appetite.

lack of appetite

A 2020 study published in PLOS ONE found that patients with iron deficiency anemia have decreased appetite, and therefore also have an increased risk of malnutrition, due to iron's influence on the appetite-regulating hormone ghrelin and leptin. (Related: How to Control Your Hunger Hormones to Lose Weight Fast, According to Experts.)

Poor cognitive skills and decreased memory.

bad memory

"Children with iron deficiency are associated with poor cognitive development, poor school achievement and abnormal behavior patterns. Basically, iron deficiency anemia is one cause of learning difficulties in children. It is important to assess iron status if any of these symptoms are apparent," says Angelone.

In adults, this includes memory loss. "Iron is a cofactor for enzymes that are involved in the production of neurotransmitters," says Pankonin.

How to get more iron

To get more iron, your diet should be packed with iron-rich foods.

The RDA (recommended daily allowance) for iron for adult men is about 8 milligrams per day and 18 milligrams per day for adult women. During pregnancy, this number increases to 27 mg each day.

"There are two types of iron in our food: nonheme and heme. Nonheme iron is derived from plant-based sources such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, grains, iron-fortified cereals, beans, and tofu," says Pankonin. "Heme iron is found in animal sources because it is derived from hemoglobin, which are cells found in the blood, and myoglobin, which are cells found in the muscle. Heme iron is derived from animal sources such as beef, chicken, and fish."

Animal sources of iron are better absorbed. "The body absorbs two to three times more iron from animal sources than from plants," says Jones.

Although you absorb less of the iron in plants, every bite counts, and adding a source of vitamin C to vegetarian sources of iron will enhance absorption.

"Foods high in vitamin C include tomatoes, citrus fruits, red, yellow and orange peppers," says Jones. "Some of the best plant sources of iron are: beans and lentils, tofu, baked potatoes, cashews, dark green leafy vegetables such as collard greens, fortified breakfast cereals, whole-grain and enriched breads."

You could also opt for an iron supplement.

"If an iron supplement is warranted, take no more than 25 milligrams a day. More than 25 milligrams may reduce the body's ability to absorb zinc," says Jones. "Always consult with a medical professional before taking a dietary supplement."

While you're reviewing your overall health, you might want to take a look at these 5 Signs of Vitamin D Deficiency You Should Never Ignore, as vitamin D deficiency is another common ailment in the American population.

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