Iron is crucial for producing hemoglobin, the protein that aids in oxygen delivery throughout our bodies. Without it, we can develop anemia. Yet lack of iron is the most common nutritional deficiency in this country, especially among women.
Are you getting enough iron? Check this list of symptoms of iron deficiency, and talk to your doctor if you think you have a problem:
- Your periods are heavy. This is the No. 1 cause of iron deficiency, according to gynecologists. How do you measure “too heavy”? Your period should fill two to three tablespoons each month. If you’re going through tampons more frequently than every two hours, make an appointment with your doctor.
- You’re exhausted. With our overscheduled lives, it’s easy to dismiss fatigue as just a normal part of life. But if you’re iron deficient, your tissues aren’t getting the oxygen they need to function properly. So if your exhaustion is accompanied by irritability, weakness and an inability to focus, your iron stores could be depleted.
- You’re pale. Hemoglobin makes blood red and gives skin a rosy glow; low iron levels reduce that color. Obviously, the darker your skin tone, the harder this symptom is to spot. You’ll need to check your gums, your tongue, the inside of your lips and the inside of your bottom eyelids; if these are less red than normal, it’s a sign you need iron.
- You experience shortness of breath easily. When your oxygen levels are low, you feel out of air. If this happens during activities you normally handle with no problems—climbing a flight of stairs or biking the hills in your neighborhood—iron deficiency could be the culprit.
- Your head aches. Your body will push oxygen to your brain before it turns its attention to other body parts, but if you’re oxygen deprived because of low iron levels, your brain will still get less oxygen than it should. The brain’s response: Swollen arteries that can lead to headaches.
- Your hair is coming out. We’re not talking about normal shedding—most people lose about 100 hairs a day—but serious hair loss. When low iron turns into full-blown anemia, your body channels oxygen to those functions necessary to survive, not making sure you’re having a good hair day.
- You crave non-food items. If you suddenly want to eat chalk, clay, dirt or paper, you’re likely suffering from pica, which is a sign of iron deficiency.
It’s important to note that iron requirements vary. Women between the ages of 19 and 50 should get 18 milligrams a day. Your iron need is higher—27 milligrams—if you’re pregnant, and dips to 9 milligrams if you’re breastfeeding. Iron-rich foods include beef, chicken, chickpeas, lentils, nuts, raisins and spinach.