10 Sneaky Signs of Iron Deficiency

by Patience Lister

10 Sneaky Signs of Iron Deficiency

If left unchecked, low iron levels can lead to iron deficiency anemia—a condition where you don’t have enough red blood cells to deliver oxygen to your body’s tissues. Women, children, vegetarians, and athletes are at the greatest risk, and recovery can take months. The biggest challenge with iron deficiency is the sneaky symptoms that easily go unnoticed.


Fatigue and weakness

When day-to-day activities, such as grocery shopping or walking the dog, become more tiring than usual and fatigue sets in easily, don’t overlook your iron levels! About 75 percent of the iron in your body is found in the hemoglobin and myoglobin responsible for keeping your muscles, organs, and other tissues oxygenated. When you don’t get enough dietary iron, or your body has trouble absorbing it, your strength and fitness are the first to suffer.


Poor concentration

Brain fog, mental fatigue, clouded thinking. We all suffer from these issues on occasion. It’s when poor concentration begins to affect your performance at work, at home, or on the road that you need to take notice. Your brain has high iron demands. It relies on iron-rich blood to stay oxygenated, build enzymes, keep neurons energized, and activate the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. This is why correcting iron deficiency is key to getting your concentration and memory back on track.


Unusual cravings

Do you crave handfuls of fresh soil or cups of ice cubes? Don’t feel embarrassed. These unusual compulsions, known as “pica,” are often caused by your brain needing more iron—and they’re more common than you may think. One study found that 32 percent of iron deficient women experienced pica. Thankfully, your health care provider can set you up with the right iron therapy that has been shown to cure non-food cravings.



Don’t shrug off paleness as a result of too much time spent indoors. A change in skin tone can also be a sign of iron deficiency anemia. When iron is low, red blood cells can’t form properly, and they become small and paler in color. Paleness in your face and eyes, as well as your nail beds and the creases of your palms, are key signs that should not be overlooked.



Almost 20 percent of women suffer from migraine headaches regularly. While many of us blame common triggers, such as poor sleep and weather changes, there’s a direct link between women’s iron status and the susceptibility to migraines. The evidence is especially strong for women age 20 to 50, showing that the more iron that’s in a woman’s diet (up to about 25 mg per day), the lower her tendency to get migraines.



Feeling dizzy, faint, or lightheaded are red flags that your brain needs more oxygen. Low iron levels can be an underlying cause of dizziness because of iron’s strong connection to heart function and the ability to pump blood efficiently. Hospital studies show that more than half of all patients admitted for heart failure are iron deficient. And the more severe the deficiency is, the more serious the cardiovascular problems tend to be.


Restless legs

Do you find yourself jiggling and moving to get comfortable? Or do you spend the night “running” in your sleep? Iron deficiency, even without reaching anemic levels, is a risk factor for restless leg syndrome. This neurological condition, which affects more than 20 percent of iron deficient blood donors, is caused by a lack of iron in sections of the mid-brain responsible for reward and movement.


Shortness of breath

Struggling to catch your breath while exercising, despite being in top physical shape, can be a symptom of low iron. Your iron level has a huge impact on physical performance. Without enough, your muscles are deprived of oxygen, making them more sluggish and prone to the buildup of lactic acid. Intense exercise can heighten iron loss, putting marathoners and other endurance athletes at a greater risk.


Hair loss

We often relate hair loss with genetics or stress. But thinning hair may also be a symptom of low iron levels. Like the rest of your organs, your hair relies on an ample supply of blood to grow properly. Even specific conditions like pattern hair loss and alopecia can stem from underlying iron deficiencies. One study found that women with pattern hair loss had 37 percent lower blood iron levels than women with healthy hair.


Ringing ears

Ringing in the ears can be hard to ignore, but its relationship with iron is easily overlooked. The body makes up for iron deficiency anemia by working the heart harder to pump more blood to the brain and organs. The ear picks up this turbulent blood flow as a “ringing” or “swooshing” sound, also called tinnitus. The good news is that unlike other causes of tinnitus, low iron can typically be resolved through supplementation or eating more iron-rich foods.

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