Iron is essential for so many processes in your body—and so if you have low iron levels, there can be some serious and unpleasant side effects (more on that below).
What Does Iron Do in the Body?
Iron helps to shuttle oxygen throughout your body and without enough of it, it’s harder for your body to keep up with your cardio routine. Iron also supports muscle and connective tissue growth, neurological development, and the making of some hormones. For example, iron is needed to make dopamine—a chemical that sends signals from your body to your brain and plays a big role in your mental wellbeing. In depression, dopamine levels are low.
Iron Deficiency Is Not Uncommon
Turns out being short on iron is more common that you might think. More women are deficient (about 11 percent) than men (about 4 percent).
Children, the elderly, and vegetarians and vegans are also more likely to develop anemia.
Common and Surprising Signs of Iron Deficiency
Iron deficiency isn’t always easy to identify. Not only can the symptoms come on slowly, but also some experts say that it can take years before it starts to hamper your day-to-day life—especially as iron levels move from mildly deficient to marginally deficient to iron-deficiency anemia, which is the most severe. A blood test is the best way to know if you’re iron-deficient, and these symptoms can help you decide if you need to have your levels tested.
- Fatigue. AKA tired all the time. This is the most common symptom of iron deficiency—and begins even if there’s only a mild dip in iron stores.
- Being cold, even when others aren’t. An intolerance to cold temperatures is another common symptom of iron deficiency.
- Easily short of breath. If their endurance seems to be slipping, it could be that they’re low in iron.
- Thinner and/or more brittle hair. This is much more common in women than men.
- Depression. Iron-deficiency is about 15 percent more common in depressed people.
- Suffer from celiac disease or IBD. Both are inflammatory conditions and chronic inflammation encourages the overproduction of a compound called hepcidin—and too much hepcidin can lead to iron deficiency.
How to Get More Iron
Iron comes in two forms—heme and non-heme iron. The former is easier for our bodies to absorb and use. It’s found in animal products—meat, poultry, seafood. The latter is also in animal products, and in plant foods.
The best food sources of iron are lean meat and seafood. Spinach is also well-known for its iron count, and a ½ cup of cooked spinach delivers 17 percent of the daily target. Surprisingly, about half of the iron in our diet comes from so-called non-heme sources like cereal, bread, and other grain products.
The daily target (called the Daily Value) for iron is 18 milligrams. A single serving of a fortified breakfast cereal will usually deliver all 18 milligrams, but the calcium in milk will inhibit some of your body’s iron absorption. (To encourage better iron absorption, aim to pair iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods [think: orange juice, most fruits and vegetables].) A standard 3-ounce serving of beef offers about 2 milligrams iron.
Here are some other less common—and surprising— sources of iron.
- Oysters (3 ounces, cooked) = 8 mg
- White beans (1 cup) = 8 mg
- Seaweed (1/4 cup) = 8 mg
- Morel mushrooms (1 cup) = 8 mg
- Dark chocolate (3 ounces) = 7 mg
- Victory Hemp Hemp Protein50 (2.5 Tbsp.) = 7 mg
- Victory Hemp V-70™ Hemp Heart Protein (about 2.5 Tbsp.) = 6 mg
- Lentils (1/2 cup) = 3 mg
- Baked potato (medium-sized, with skin) = 2 mg
- Sunflower seeds (1/4 cup) = 2 mg
- Hemp seeds (3 Tbsp.) = 2 mg
- Dried apricots (1/4 cup) = 2 mg
- Raisins (1/4 cup) = 1 mg
- Brown rice (1 cup, cooked) = 1 mg
There are instances where increasing the iron-rich foods in the diet isn’t sufficient—namely if blood levels are particularly low. For those people, sometimes an iron supplement or a prescription is necessary. If that’s you, speak with your doctor, or primary health provider, before starting a supplement.
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