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Santosuosso: Iron deficiency symptoms, how to treat it


An estimated 1.6 billion people worldwide have an iron deficiency. Being deficient in iron causes anemia, a condition where your body doesn’t make enough red blood cells to send oxygen to your organs and other tissues.

In the beginning stages of iron deficiency, you may not notice any symptoms but over time, you may develop multiple signs including shortness of breath, feeling weak and changes to your nails and hair. As a naturopathic doctor who has treated dozens of patients with iron deficiency here is some important information you should know and how to make sure you are getting enough iron in your diet.

Why iron is important to overall health

Iron is an essential mineral that has several active roles in the human body. Iron has roles in metabolism, oxygen transport, and DNA synthesis. However, both too much and too little of this mineral can have a detrimental effect on your health.

The most common iron deficiency-related health concern is anemia. Iron is essential for the delivery of oxygen throughout your body through its role in the production of hemoglobin, which picks up oxygen and transports it through your bloodstream to your cells. Approximately two-thirds of the total body’s iron is found in hemoglobin in red blood cells.

When we do not have enough iron to produce hemoglobin, it can reduce the function of our red blood cells and their ability to circulate oxygen, resulting in anemia. People most susceptible to iron deficiency are:

  • Women with heavy periods and conditions like endometriosis;
  • Pregnant women due to increased requirements;
  • People with gastrointestinal conditions result in malabsorption, for example celiac disease; and
  • People with inadequate iron intake.

While iron is an essential part of our diet and health, too much iron can also become a problem. Iron overload can occur with excessive supplementation of iron and in genetic conditions like hereditary hemochromatosis, a condition that causes your body to absorb too much iron from the foods you eat. Iron is stored in the liver as ferritin, a blood protein. When iron becomes too abundant, it can create iron deposits in organs like the liver and heart, causing damage.

Common signs of iron deficiency

Iron deficiency can initially be present with or without anemia and create symptoms such as fatigue and brain fog. Iron deficiency progressing to anemia can cause additional symptoms such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Lightheadedness/dizziness
  • Numbness/tingling in the hands and feet
  • Heart palpitations
  • Headaches
  • Shortness of breath
  • Brittle nails
  • Cravings for ice

Good sources of iron

There are two different types of dietary iron, heme and non-heme iron. Non-heme iron is found in both animal products and non-animal products. Heme iron, however, is only found in animal products like red meat and is significantly more bioavailable than non-heme iron. This is why meat-sourced iron is generally more effective at increasing iron levels than vegetarian sources.

Food sources high in iron include:

  • Red meats
  • Liver
  • Shellfish (oysters)
  • Dark leafy veggies (collard greens, spinach, kale, mustard greens, etc.)
  • Beans, nuts and seeds

Cooking in cast iron pans can also help to increase the iron content in foods through the iron in the pan leeching into the food during the cooking process.

You also must consider how other foods affect iron absorption. Things like tea, coffee, wine and calcium can inhibit iron absorption. Foods high in vitamin C can help to improve iron absorption. It might be best to avoid foods that are high in the things that inhibit absorption, like dairy products, and consume foods that are high in vitamin C, like citrus, around the same time of eating iron-rich foods.

If you notice any signs of iron deficiency, be sure to contact your physician so you can create a plan to rectify the situation.

Editor’s note: Dr. Molly Santosuosso is a naturopathic medical doctor at Natural Kid Doc in Scottsdale. Santosuosso specializes in hormone health, treating conditions including PCOS, endometriosis, preconception, fertility care and thyroid disease.

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