Iron is a workhorse nutrient. It helps cells work properly, sharpens memory and concentration, drives energy supplies, helps form oxygen-carrying haemoglobin in red blood cells and may even ward off depression. But you may not have enough. Here’s why.
Poor iron absorption
This could be due to not eating enough iron-rich food, or eating food that hinders the way your body absorbs it. “Because iron is absorbed in the gut, faulty absorption could also be due to a digestive issue such as untreated coeliac disease or colitis,” says Dr William Ehman, from the University of British Columbia. A 2010 study published in the International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research suggested that people who are obese may not be able to absorb iron well. And absorption can be blocked for those taking large amounts of antacids or a proton-pump inhibitor (PPI) medication to treat acid reflux.
If you are training extra-hard “you can lose small amounts of iron through sweat and urine,” explains registered dietitian Alex Paton, who specialises in sport nutrition. Running can also cause minor GI bleeds, because the body is being jostled and shaken, she adds. Another factor is foot strike – red blood cells bursting in the feet when they hit the ground. Firm insoles in running shoes protect against this.
Blood donation causes a brief drop in haemoglobin, but your body recovers quickly. It’s a good idea to eat iron-rich foods for a few days after donation, and space out donations if your iron levels are in the low-normal range.
Signs of iron deficiency
Symptoms of iron deficiency can be vague, says Ehman. Possible symptoms are a sore, inflamed tongue; dizziness; restless leg; headache; difficulty maintaining body temperature; shortness of breath; brittle nails; irritability; and rapid or irregular heartbeat. In mild cases, you might not notice any symptoms at all. Your doctor can order tests to check your iron levels.