iron deficiency symptoms

Iron is an essential mineral for our body. A deficiency of iron can severely affect various body functions. One of the most important functions of iron is to provide oxygen throughout the body. Our body needs iron to produce haemoglobin. Haemoglobin is an essential part of red blood cells that helps to carry oxygen through the body. If our body does not get enough oxygen, it can lead to a condition known as anaemia. Iron deficiency anaemia is amongst the most common kinds of anaemia all over the world.
You can include foods high in iron, such as spinach, oats, seeds, red meat, seafood, poultry, tofu, etc., in your diet plan to recover from iron deficiency symptoms. Let’s find out top iron deficiency symptoms and ways to deal with the shortcoming of this essential mineral.

Iron deficiency symptoms & signs

According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, almost nine percent of women suffer from iron deficiency. The severity of the symptoms of anaemia depends on how severe the iron deficiency is. So, be on the lookout for these common iron deficiency symptoms and signs.

1. Fatigue

Our body needs iron to make haemoglobin. When our body does not have enough haemoglobin, oxygen does not reach our muscles and tissues. Lack of haemoglobin also makes our heart work harder to reach oxygen-rich blood to the other parts of the body. All this makes us tired and lethargic (1).

2. Unusually pale skin

A washed out appearance is another common sign of anaemia (2). The haemoglobin is what gives the red colour to the red blood cells. The lack of haemoglobin makes the colour of the blood as less red, and this provides the skin with a pale complexion. The paleness is evident on the face, gums, and on the inside of the lips and the lower eyelids.

Pale complexion is one of the first symptoms that the doctors look for to check if you are anaemic.

3. Breathlessness

Lack of haemoglobin can lead to a lack of adequate supply of oxygen to our muscles and tissues.  When our muscles don’t have enough oxygen for normal activities like walking, we tend to breathe heavily to get the oxygen to our body. This is the reason why shortness of breath is considered a sign of anaemia (3).

4. Frequent infections

Iron helps to keep our immune system healthy (4). Red blood cells help to transport oxygen to the spleen and the lymph nodes, both of which play an essential role in fighting off infections.

Recent studies have found that iron is a fundamental element for the normal development of the immune system. Its deficiency affects the capacity to have an adequate immune response. The role of iron in immunity is necessary for immune cell proliferation.

5. Swollen tongue

If you notice some changes in your tongue like soreness, swelling or if you find it strangely smooth, it may be a sign of iron deficiency (5). Low levels of haemoglobin make the tongue pale, while low levels of myoglobin make it sore, swollen and smooth.

Myoglobin is a protein in the red blood cells that helps keep our muscles healthy. A sore tongue can lead to problems in chewing, swallowing and talking. Iron deficiency can also cause painful cracks on the side of the mouth and mouth ulcers.

6. Pica

People with iron deficiency may develop an unusual craving for substances like dirt, chalk or clay. This condition is known as pica. Pregnant women can also develop pica, and this can also lead to poisoning (6).

7. Hair loss

Though it is normal to lose a few hairs a day, if you notice excessive hair fall, it may be a sign of iron deficiency (7). When our body is iron deficient, it supplies its limited oxygen to more critical organs. When our hair follicles don’t get enough oxygen, the hair starts to fall out.

8. Itchy dry skin

Our skin needs oxygen-rich blood to remain healthy. Without sufficient iron to make haemoglobin, our skin does not get the oxygen that it needs. This makes our skin look dry and lifeless. Itchy scalp is one such example.

9. Restless leg syndrome

Iron deficiency can also lead to restless leg syndrome (8). This syndrome causes a strong urge to move your legs. This makes it very difficult to sit still in a place, and it makes sleeping also very difficult.

10. Spoon-shaped or brittle nails

Iron is necessary for the growth of healthy nail tissue. Deficiency in iron can cause brittle or spoon-shaped nails. The nails become concave shaped, and they dip towards the centre. The nails also chip and break very easily. This condition is known as koilonychia (9).

11. Headaches

Iron deficiency can lead to lack of adequate supply of oxygen to the brain. This causes the blood vessels in the brain to swell, and this can lead to headaches and dizzy spells (10). When iron deficiency is very severe, this can even lead to fainting.

12. Palpitations

Noticeable heartbeat or heart palpitations are also one of the signs of iron deficiency. Due to the lack of iron and low levels of haemoglobin, the heart has to beat harder to carry the oxygen. This can lead to heart palpitations. In some extreme cases, it can also lead to enlarged heart, heart attack or heart failure (11).

13. Cold hands and feet

When there is less oxygen in our blood, our body prioritises oxygen supply to essential organs like brain and heart over hands and feet. This lack of circulation to hands and feet makes them cold and in some cases numb.

14. Unexplained anxiety

Iron deficiency can also cause stress. Lack of oxygen activates our body’s sympathetic nervous system. Palpitations caused by low levels of haemoglobin, also adds to the anxiety.

What causes iron deficiency anaemia?

There can be many causes of iron deficiency anaemia.

  • Poor or restrictive diet. If we do not include iron-rich food in our diet, it can lead to anaemia.
  • If you have haemorrhoids, ulcers or cancer, which are causing bleeding inside the body, it can lead to anaemia.
  • Blood loss during menstruation can cause anaemia.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease can cause anaemia.
  • If your body is not able to absorb iron due to Celiac disease or if you have had a part of your stomach or intestine removed.
  • Women develop iron deficiency anaemia during pregnancy. They need iron for their increased blood volume and to be the source of haemoglobin for the foetus.

People more likely to develop iron deficiency

Some groups of people are at a higher risk for iron deficiency. These include:

Vegetarians – Vegetarians are at a higher risk of developing iron deficiency. They should consider more iron-rich food in their diet.

Women – Women tend to lose blood during menstruation. This makes them more likely to develop an iron deficiency.

Children – Children need extra iron as they are in a growing stage. Children that do not have a healthy iron-rich diet can develop anaemia.

How to correct an iron deficiency?

If you notice any of the above-given iron deficiency symptoms, you must visit your doctor. A simple test will confirm that you have an iron deficiency.

It is relatively easy to treat an iron deficiency. The doctor will ask you to include iron-rich foods in your diet, and he may also give you iron supplements. Take a supplement only if the doctor recommends it, too much of iron can lead some side effects.

These include constipation, stomach pain, diarrhea, heartburn, nausea and black stools. Too much of iron can also cause damage to the brain and the liver.

Iron rich foods

Iron comes in two forms. Heme iron is quickly absorbed and comes from an animal source. On the other side, non-heme iron is less easily absorbed. Iron is also leached out when these foods are cooked.

If you eat vitamin C-rich foods, it can improve the iron absorption from plants sources (12).

Red meat

Red meat is one of the best iron rich foods. A 100 grams of ground beef serving has 2.7 mg of iron. According to a research, people who eat red meat, fish and chicken are less likely to be iron deficient (13).

Organ meat

Organ meat such as Liver, brain, kidneys and heart are rich in iron. You can get 6.5 mg of iron from 100 grams of one serving of liver meat. Also, organ meats are rich in selenium, copper and vitamins.


You can get 2.3 mg of iron from 100 grams of dark turkey meat. White turkey has less iron content which is 1.3 mg of iron per 100 grams of serving. Turkey meat is also an excellent source of protein and contains minerals like potassium, zinc and phosphorous.


Shellfish is a good source of iron. Clams, oysters and mussels are some great examples of seafood that contain high iron. 100 grams of clams contain 28 mg (up to) of iron. Also, these kinds of seafood can improve good cholesterol level in your blood.


Pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds and hemp are rich in iron. These seeds contain around 1.2-4.2 mg of iron per tablespoon. Also, they are also a good source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.


126 grams of tofu serving contains around 3.6 mg of iron. Tofu is also a rich source of proteins.


You can get 3.5 mg of iron from 100 gram serving of cooked spinach. The same amount of fresh spinach contains around 2.7 mg of iron. Also, spinach contains vitamin C which helps in iron absorption, such as when you consume non-hemp foods, in the body.


Raw nuts are rich in iron. Pistachios have the highest amount of iron.  Pistachios contain almost 14 mg of iron per 100 grams of serving. Roasting and blanching of the nuts result in lower nutrients value. So, you must eat nuts in the raw form.


Olives contain 3.3 mg of iron per 100 grams of serving. They are also an excellent source of fat, fibre and fat-soluble vitamins A and E. You can get other benefits through olives such as it can boost your metabolism and lower risk of heart disease.

Coconut milk

One cup of coconut milk contains around 4 mg of iron. Coconut milk also provides vital minerals such as magnesium, potassium and phosphorus.

Opt for iron supplements as last resort

Usually, you should be able to correct iron deficiency by including iron-rich foods in your diet plan. But in a certain case, the doctor might recommend you to go for iron supplements.

Beware that too much of iron could cause issues like diarrhea, nausea, stomach pain, etc. Also, same could be experienced as the side effect of iron supplements. However, these side effects ease out with time and largely depends on the dosage of iron supplements.

Over to you on iron deficiency symptoms

Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world. Iron deficiency symptoms include lethargy, dizziness, brittle nails, breathlessness and palpitations. Fortunately, this deficiency is easily treatable.

Get yourself tested for this deficiency by a doctor and take supplements recommended by him. Having an iron-rich diet, such as spinach, lean red meat, nuts, etc., is the easiest way to prevent this deficiency.

Avoid going for iron supplements as they have unpleasant side effects as diarrhea, heartburn, stomach pain, black stools, nausea, etc. Also, you should only go for iron supplements if your doctor recommends so.