The tell-tale signs of an iron deficiency

Fatigue is a common clue that you may be low in iron, but there are a host of lesser-known symptoms too. Here’s what to watch out for.

Iron does its fair share of heavy lifting when it comes to helping our bodies function properly.

Among other things, the wonder dietary mineral helps transport oxygen in the blood, which is essential for our daily energy needs, and helps our immune system fight infection.

But it’s not uncommon for people to have too little iron.

Women and teenagers who are menstruating, pregnant or breastfeeding are particularly prone to iron deficiency. Vegetarians and vegans may also have low iron as they don’t eat meat – a quick and easy source of iron.

“Iron deficiency is more common in women because they bleed monthly – around two in five women aged 14 to 50 years old may have inadequate iron levels,” dietitian Natasha Murray says.

“When women are pregnant and breastfeeding, they also need more iron and vegetarians may have low iron if they don’t balance their diet.”

Signs and symptoms of iron deficiency

Tiredness and fatigue are common signs of iron depletion.

“There will be a level of tiredness where you find it hard to function – people describe it as feeling like you’ve been hit by a bus,” says Natasha, of Dietitians Australia.

Breathlessness, hair loss and brittle nails can also be signs.

“Pale skin is a further indication. If you gently pull down the bottom of your eyelid, it should be red or dark pink. If the area is pale, you may have iron deficiency,” Natasha says.

Some people experience pica, which is a craving to eat chalk, dirt or ice – but why iron deficiency is a cause of this remains unknown.

“Iron plays an important role in our immune function, too, so if you get sick more often and find it difficult to get over illnesses, it’s a good idea to get your iron levels checked,” Natasha says.

How to check your iron levels

A simple blood test can identify if you are iron deficient.

It’s important to speak to your GP because iron deficiency can sometimes indicate an underlying problem like bowel cancer or coeliac disease.

“It’s really important that the cause of iron deficiency is properly investigated, rather than patients just being instructed to take iron supplements,” reported Associate Professor Jason Tye-Din, a clinician scientist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute who recently took part in research about how best to diagnose and manage iron deficiency.

“If doctors don’t take iron deficiency seriously and investigate why it is happening, serious health problems could be overlooked.”

4 ways to boost iron levels


Your GP may recommend an iron supplement.

Increase iron-rich food in your diet

Good sources of iron include:

  • Red meat
  • Chicken
  • Liver
  • Iron-fortified breakfast cereals
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Dried fruit

“A palm-sized serve of red meat three to four times a week will provide a good amount of iron,” says Natasha. “This can include mince, steak, kangaroo, beef and lamb.”

Get on the juice

Plant-based iron can be harder for the body to absorb but vitamin C helps this process, so eat plant-based iron with foods like tomatoes or capsicum or with a squeeze of juice.

Avoid drinking tea with meals

“Tea contains polyphenols that act as a barrier to iron absorption so have a cup of tea at least half hour after meals so your body can absorb the iron first,” says Natasha.

Written by Sarah Marinos.