Symptoms Iron Deficiency?



Iron is an mineral that is essential to the health of humans and other organisms. It stimulates the muscle and brain function, metabolic processes and, most importantly, the formation of haemoglobin (1)(2)(3). Haemoglobin is a protein that transports oxygen and CO2 through our blood. The iron in haemoglobin gives our red blood cells their red colour.

Iron is a important mineral to the human body. Since our body is unable to create this vitamin itself, we need to get iron from our foods. We gain our iron from heme-rich foods like fish, red meats and poultry. We can also absorb iron from plants, which contain non-heme iron. Plant-based foods which contain the most iron are (soy)beans, legumes, green-leaved vegetables, plankton and dried apricots (4).

One way to increase your intake of iron is to eat more vitamin C in combination with iron-rich foods. The vitamin C helps to absorb the element (5). In other cases you might need to take supplements to increase your iron intake. Iron deficiency can lead to anemia.

There are certain groups of people that have a higher risk of creating a iron deficiency. Those people may benefit from using iron supplements next to their daily meals. It is, however, important to note that if you suspect you have a iron deficiency, you should always consult a doctor before taking any supplements.

People with a higher risk of obtaining an iron deficiency are:

  • Pregnant women,
  • Menstruating women,
  • Top athletes,
  • Individuals who taking iron depleting medicine,
  • People with ADHD.

A shortage of iron can be recognized by the following symptoms. If you experience one of the symptoms, it may be wise to consult a physician.


A deficiency in iron may cause you to feel fatigued, even when you are not experiencing any anaemia. It is most commonly caused by an iron deficiency and impairs the way in which you can perform both mental and physical tasks (7). It’s harder to complete daily tasks without taking a break halfway through and even after a full night’s rest you will still feel as if you haven’t slept all day.

The body needs iron to create haemoglobin, which can be found in red blood cells. The haemoglobin helps to carry around oxygen through the whole body. A deficiency in iron prevents the creation of haemoglobin and thus leads less oxygen throughout the body. This exhausts muscles and the brain more easily (8).

In short: a deficiency in iron can cause fatigue due to the lack of oxygen in your red blood cells which exhausts the brain.


As stated above, the body needs oxygen in order to function properly. A shortage on oxygen in the muscles exhausts them quicker. In order to get more oxygen towards those muscles, your body will increase the amounts of breaths you take to transport more oxygen. The result is a shortness of breath (6)(9).

This can occur during both low-intensity and high-intensity tasks depending on the seriousness of the iron deficiency.

In short: performing regular tasks cost more oxygen due to the lack of haemoglobin in your blood. It could be possible that this lack causes you to experience shortness of breath.


Haemoglobin gives the red blood cells their red colour, which causes your skin to have more red tints in it (10). When there isn’t a lot of haemoglobin present in the blood cells. They won’t receive their red colour, leaving the body pale as well. Since iron helps to create haemoglobin, a deficiency in iron will certainly be a factor in skin paleness. Anaemia also plays a big role in the colour of someone’s skin. The same research showed that people with more severe anaemia were usually paler than people with moderate anaemia (10).

When going to the doctor for a possible iron deficiency, they often look at the skin as one of the first symptoms to see if it’s paler than usual. The eyelids contribute heavily to this since they consist of thinner skin than the rest of the body, thus making it easier to detect any oddities (11).

In short: haemoglobin colours the red blood cells. A lack of haemoglobin due to an iron deficiency prevents the colouration of the red blood cells resulting in a pale skin.


While having headaches is one of the lesser known symptoms of iron deficiency, it often goes paired with dizziness and light-headedness (6). This is all caused by the oxygen in the blood flow.

When there is not enough oxygen in the red blood cells, not enough oxygen gets transported towards the brain, which causes your brain to swell its blood vessels to make the transport of blood easier and faster in order to gain more oxygen. This swelling causes pressure inside the brain, causing headaches, dizziness or light-headedness (12).

In short: because your brain tries to gain as much oxygen from your blood, it will swell the blood vessels in causing them to press against your brain which can result in a headache or dizziness.


When there is a limited supply of oxygen to transport throughout the whole body, the body will choose to take the oxygen to the more important organs first like the liver, heart, kidneys and lungs. Hair will be left without oxygen and while this won’t be a problem for a short while. If there is an oxygen shortage for a longer period of time, the hair will start to get brittle and weak. In the long term, this can cause hair loss (13).

While it’s normal for a human being to lose hair throughout the day, it’s not normal when clumps of hair start coming off your head. Increasing your iron intake will strengthen your hair again.

In short: due to the lack of oxygen caused by iron deficiency, your body will leave the least important organs for last resulting in your hair follicles receiving less oxygen and becoming brittle. In the long term, this may cause hair loss.


A different symptom is a swollen or sore tongue. Sometimes an oddly smooth tongue can occur as well. While haemoglobin causes your tongue to be paler than usual, myoglobin can swell or smoothen the tongue (14).

Myoglobin is a protein that makes up muscle strength and flexibility. A deficiency of this protein will provide the muscles with too little support for the tongue. A deficiency in iron may not only affect your tongue, but also the rest of your mouth. This can be seen from crackers mouth-corners, ulcers or a dry mouth (15).

In short: a lack of iron can cauze a lack of both haemoglobin and myoglobin preventing the support of the muscles, especially your tongue. This can then change the form and feeling of your tongue.


Studies show that restless leg syndrome is a symptom in about 25% of patients with anaemia (16). This is most likely caused by the lack of oxygen being transported towards the legs, causing you to feel a tingling sensation and feeling the need to move your legs.

This symptom occurs mostly at night, causing the patient a lack of sleep.

In short: due to the lack of oxygen being transported, your legs will feel tingling causing a restless leg syndrome.


Studies show that a deficiency in iron causes multiple issues with the brain and memory in both early development and later ages (17). Firstly, an iron deficiency has negative effects on the creation of myelin. Myelin helps fatty tissue to connect axons in the brain to process information faster.

A lack of myelin causes information to be processed less frequent (18). A deficiency in iron also halts the development of the hippocampus in infants, resulting in learning problems later on in life (19). The hippocampus also helps to memorize certain information and events. A less developed hippocampus will therefore also obstruct the memory of people who’ve been exposed to an iron deficiency in their infant life (20).

In short: a lack of iron in both pregnancy and thereafter can result in the loss of brain functions like memorization and information processing.


Another task of iron is to regulate the body’s temperature (21). This makes sure that the body it at its optimal temperature to perform its tasks like digesting food, detoxifying the liver and processing minerals through the kidneys. When the body does not generate enough energy, this causes your organs to function less well. That's why you feel cold more often.

In short: a low iron supply slows the processes of your internal organs causing them to process less heat, which can cause you to feel cold.


Since the body needs oxygen to function, a low iron supply prevents the transportation of oxygen your body needs. In order to receive as much oxygen as it can, your heart will start working harder to pump the blood through your veins. This can potentially lead to heart palpitations (6)(22) or in more extreme cases, an enlarged heart or heart murmurs (6).

In short: because your heart wants more oxygen to be transported throughout the body. Your heart it will pump faster causing palpitations and even heart murmurs

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