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5 symptoms of an iron deficiency

Are you plagued with fatigue or exhaustion throughout the day? It could be the result of an iron deficiency. 

Iron is an essential mineral in the body that helps red blood cells transport oxygen from the lungs to your organs and tissue, which is important because every cell in your body needs oxygen to function properly.

But certain circumstances like blood loss, an unhealthy diet, or poor iron absorption can cause iron levels to drop too low, creating a deficiency. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States, and it is the leading cause of anemia.

And though most people don’t know they are iron deficient until they have a blood test, there are a few symptoms you should look out for.

1. Fatigue. Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of an iron deficiency, but it can be easy to overlook. 

“Fatigue is really tough, because everyone works so hard these days that they can be fatigued for so many reasons,” says Vikash Modi, M.D., a family medicine physician at Piedmont.

If you are extremely fatigued for over a month and feel weak, irritable, or unable to focus, you may need to consult your doctor.

2. Feeling cold. Cold hands and feet can be a result of iron deficiency anemia. People with anemia have poor blood circulation throughout their bodies because they don’t have enough red blood cells to provide oxygen to their tissue.

“If you’re not getting enough oxygen to your body tissue, you don’t have a normal sensation of hot and cold,” says Dr. Modi.  

3. Chewing ice.  Another symptom of an iron deficiency is an intense craving for ice.  This condition, called pagophagia, is a form of pica—an eating disorder that causes people to eat substances that have no nutritional value.

People with pagophagia eat several cups or pounds of ice every day.

One study published in the journal Medical Hypotheses suggests that eating ice may give a boost of energy to those suffering from an iron deficiency.

4. Restless legs symptoms. Some people suffering from an iron deficiency get the symptoms of restless legs syndrome.  Restless legs syndrome is a neurological disorder that gives sufferers an irresistible urge to move their legs.

“People may experience sharp pains, or numbness and tingling in their legs,” says Dr. Modi. “It has a lot to do with the neurological correlation between iron and the nervous system."

5. Eating dirt. A severe iron deficiency can cause people to crave or eat dirt, another form of pica. This symptom is often seen in the South or amongst pregnant women.

Treating an iron deficiency

If you are suffering from an iron deficiency, there are several methods of treatment. Your doctor may recommend:

  • Eating more iron-rich foods. “Foods that we associate with an iron-rich content would be the red meats, dark leafy greens, pistachios and beans, especially for vegetarians,” says Dr. Modi.
  • Taking iron supplements. Iron supplements provide your body with the recommended daily intake of iron, but they can also cause unwelcome side effects, like constipation. Dr. Modi suggests trying newer versions of these supplements.

“They’ve actually started to produce newer versions of these iron supplements that come with stool softeners,” says Dr. Modi. “There are iron pills that are packaged with B12 and folic acid and vitamin C, so the iron absorbs much better. And then there is a liquid iron supplement for people who can’t tolerate the big pills.”

Dr. Modi also prescribes prenatal vitamins to both his female and male patients, because they are a great source of iron.

  • Getting iron transfusions. Doctors recommend iron, or heme, transfusions for people who may have had colon surgery or have a hard time absorbing iron.

“They’ll hook a patient up to an IV treatment and transfuse iron or heme to the blood,” says Dr. Modi. “And they might end up going into the hospital for an iron transfusion once a month. “

Dr. Modi practices at Piedmont Physicians Brookhaven, located at 3925 Peachtree Road Northeast, Suite 300, Brookhaven, GA 30319. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Modi or one of our other primary care providers. Save time, book online.

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