5 Signs You’re Low On Iron

From Dr. Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS.

Iron is one of the most important nutrients to the body, as it is necessary for the production of hemoglobin. And even though you may not be too familiar with this particular protein, it is a critical factor in keeping your body functioning at an optimal level. Hemoglobin is found in red blood cells and is responsible for carrying oxygen from the lungs to other cells throughout the body, and when those cells don’t receive the proper levels of oxygen—because of low iron levels that lead to low hemoglobin levels—the results can be dramatic.

Here, we’ll take a look at some of the five most common symptoms of iron deficiency, as well as all-natural ways to fix the problem ASAP.

Chronic fatigue:

When iron and hemoglobin levels are low, and cells throughout the body aren’t receiving enough oxygen, one of the first symptoms you may feel is constant fatigue or a tendency to tire easily when engaging in normal activity. You may also feel more tired because iron plays an important role in metabolic function, as well as enzymatic activity that digests food and absorbs nutrients. When iron is low, the body is less able to convert other nutrients—like potassium, magnesium and B vitamins—into energy.

Weakened immune system:

By now you know that a healthy immune system is required to keep the body functioning properly. You may not know, however, that proper iron levels are required to keep the immune system running smoothly. As I mentioned, iron is needed to help the body digest food and absorb immune system-boosting nutrients, and it is also needed to carry oxygen to damaged and/or infected areas of the body to assist in their repair.

Impaired cognitive function:

The body does a great job at conserving energy for the most necessary functions, so if oxygen supply is low, what is available will be transported directly to most vital cells and organs in the body. That’s good news for keeping you alive, but not so good if you’re making a presentation at work or studying for a big exam. It’s estimated that about 20% of all the oxygen in the body is used by the brain, so low iron can definitely impact memory, concentration and other cognitive functions.

Changes in mood:

For the most part, our moods are regulated by key neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters are like tiny chemical messengers that relay signals between nerve cells that keep your heart beating, your lungs breathing and, depending on the area of the brain in which they are active, affect mood and behavior. Neurotransmitter function requires adequate iron levels, and when those levels are low (again, creating low oxygen levels), poor mood, feelings of depression or anxiety and lack of motivation can be the result.

What Next?

If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms on a regular basis, I recommend visiting a functional medicine doctor who can test your iron levels and accurately diagnose iron deficiency, if you actually have it. The question is, if you are, in fact, suffering from low iron levels, what’s the best way to fix it?

For starters, I advise against taking iron supplements when possible (you may not be able to avoid this if your levels are dangerously low, however). Hemochromatosis, or iron overload, is typically caused from genetic causes or from taking iron supplements in high amounts. The best way to avoid this (as well as constipation, nausea, cramps and other side effects of supplemental iron) is to make the following dietary changes that can boost iron levels naturally. 

Fill your diet with iron-rich foods, including beef liver, white beans, lentils, chickpeas, sardines and lamb.

If you are a vegan or vegetarian, you may need to take an iron supplement (preferably one that is whole-food based and without chemicals, preservatives and other fillers). Non-heme iron can be found in plant-based foods, but that type of iron is absorbed less efficiently than the heme iron found in animal sources, like meat, poultry and fish.

When you are consuming plant-based non-heme iron, try adding in some vitamin C-rich foods. Different foods, when combined or eaten at the same time, can impair or improve the body’s ability to absorb iron. Vitamin C actually boosts iron absorption, so be sure to load up on foods like bell peppers, broccoli and citrus fruits.

Stay away from calcium-rich foods and foods that contain chemical compounds like polyphenols and phytates, as they can decrease the absorption of iron from other foods sources. These foods include tea, coffee and dairy products. 

Learn more about the vitamins and nutrients you could be missing or consult Dr. Axe’s guide to foods that build muscle.  

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