Anemia comes from the ancient Greek άναιμία, anaemia, which means lack of blood. It is defined by a decrease in the number of red blood cells in the body/total amount of haemoglobin or a lowered ability of the blood to carry oxygen.1
Is having low iron levels the same as having iron deficiency anemia?No, you can have low iron without having full-blown iron deficiency anemia and may be on track to developing it, but not the other way around. Iron deficiency anemia manifests when the iron levels in your body fall below an acceptable level and your body can no longer maintain healthy levels of haemoglobin or transport oxygen efficiently, which can cause all sorts of problems.
14 Symptoms of iron deficiency anemiaIron deficiency anaemia symptoms and symptoms of low iron are pretty similar. They may come on overnight or they may appear gradually. Here are some of the most common and least common signs of low iron levels and iron deficiency you should look out for:6,7
1. Tiredness, fatigue and impaired mental functionEven if you don’t have full-blown iron deficiency anemia, low iron levels can still have you feeling tired and fatigued.8 Even if you get all the rest in the world, having the energy to go around day-to-day can still feel like a very big and extremely tiring task when you’re low on iron. This is because iron deficient people don’t have enough haemoglobin to transport enough oxygen to their muscles and tissues, which then become energy deprived. Researchers part of an Australian study found that 29,000 women with low iron levels felt tired all the time and also had lower levels of wellbeing and general health than women who had no history of iron deficiency.9 A tired brain is also not a very efficient brain so you may find that you lack concentration or focus.
2. Fast or irregular heartbeatYour heart has to work harder to pump the blood around your body when you are iron deficient, which can cause tiredness.10 Although usually only a symptom for people who have suffered from iron deficiency for a long time, this can lead to the feeling of your heart beating much faster than usual or irregular heartbeats.11,12
3. Shortness of breath and chest painWhen you have iron deficiency, your body can struggle to transport enough oxygen around the body – including to your muscles. If you feel short of breath doing normal daily activities that you used to do with ease, like walking, climbing up the stairs or doing a light workout, this may be a sign that your body is struggling to distribute enough oxygen to your muscles.13
4. A pale complexionBeen feeling a little pastier lately? Pale skin and pale inner lower eyelids are common symptoms of iron deficiency. A lack of haemoglobin means that our blood could become less red, which is why some people can lose their healthy rosy glow when they are deficient in iron.14
5. WeaknessJust like iron deficiency can cause you to feel out of breath more often due to lack of oxygen reaching the muscles, this can also cause feelings of weakness.15
6. Headaches and dizzinessIron deficiency may contribute to headaches accompanied by feelings of dizziness or light-headedness.16 It is thought that this is because low haemoglobin can reduce the amount of oxygen reaching the brain, which can cause the brain to swell and cause headaches and pressure.
7. Cold hands or feetThe lack of oxygen transportation around the body due to iron deficiency may mean that your hands and feet are put at the bottom of the priority list for oxygen, and lack of blood flow can make them feel cold.
8. Mouth ulcers or cracks at the corners of the mouthIron deficiency anemia is one of the most common causes of recurrent ulcers.17 This may be because a lack of iron could mean the skin in your mouth isn’t getting enough nutrients, which is one of the main causes of chronic ulcers.18
9. Poor or slow wound healingOur body needs iron to heal wounds well, and if you are deficient in iron it could lead to slow and poor wound healing.19
10. TinnitusThere seems to be link between iron deficiency and hearing problems like tinnitus – a condition that causes you to hear noises from within the body like buzzing or ringing. It is thought that people with iron deficiency anemia commonly experience tinnitus symptoms as the blood cells are failing to carry enough oxygen through the body.20
11. Inflammation, extreme smoothness or soreness of your tongueAnemia tongue, aka glossitis, can be caused by low iron levels. This condition causes the tongue to become inflamed, change colour, swell in size and lose its natural texture / become smooth.21
12. Brittle/spoon-shaped nailsSymptoms of more severe iron deficiency anemia are brittle/spoon-shaped nails.22 This spans from brittle nails that are prone to cracks and chips, all the way to spoon-shaped nails that dip in the middle and raise at the edges – making them look a bit like a spoon!
13. Lack of appetiteIron deficiency and decreased appetite have been linked. One study showed that iron supplementation helped iron-deficient patients to eat more due to its influence on the hormone leptin that helps us feel satisfied and full.23
14. A desire to eat non-food itemsRather weirdly, a lack of iron can cause you to crave non-food items like paper, ice, dirt, chalk or clay! This behaviour is linked to a condition called pica, where patients develop cravings for non-nutritious substances. Iron supplementation has been found to help get rid of this behaviour.24 If you have some of these symptoms, please contact your GP who can do a simple blood test to find out if you’re lacking in iron.