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How to Know if You’re Iron Deficient

Steps to Improve Your Iron Levels

, by Aussie Pharma Direct, 11 min reading time

Iron is one of the essential minerals in our body, playing a critical role in various physiological functions. It is a key component of haemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells responsible for transporting oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.

This constant flow of oxygen is essential for our cells to function properly and generate energy, however, when iron levels dip, our body can't produce enough haemoglobin. This deficiency can lead to a cascade of health problems, including fatigue, shortness of breath, and even an impaired immune system. In the next sections, we will explore in detail how iron functions in the body, the signs and symptoms of iron deficiency, and what you can do to ensure you maintain adequate iron levels.

The role of iron in the body

Iron is an essential mineral that supports several critical functions in the body. Here are the key functions of iron and how it supports overall well-being.

  1. Oxygen transport via haemoglobin

Iron's most recognised function is its involvement in oxygen transport. It serves as a key component of haemoglobin, the abundant protein found in red blood cells. Haemoglobin acts like a taxi, specifically designed to carry oxygen molecules. When we breathe in, oxygen diffuses from the lungs into the bloodstream, binding to the iron within haemoglobin. This iron-oxygen complex allows red blood cells to efficiently deliver oxygen throughout the body.

In fact, about 70% of your body's iron is found stored within haemoglobin and another protein in muscle cells called myoglobin. Myoglobin stores oxygen within muscle cells, providing a readily available reserve for when muscles demand extra energy, such as during exercise.

  1. Energy production

The oxygen transported by iron-rich haemoglobin is crucial for cellular respiration, the process by which our cells convert nutrients into usable energy. Without sufficient oxygen, this process becomes sluggish, leading to fatigue and a feeling of sluggishness.

  1. Immune function

Iron supports the immune system by promoting the proliferation and maturation of immune cells, particularly lymphocytes, which play a critical role in the body's defence against infections. Adequate iron levels help ensure a robust immune response, reducing susceptibility to illnesses.

  1. Cognitive function and neurological health

Iron is involved in the production of some neurotransmitters, chemicals that facilitate communication between brain cells, impacting mood, focus, and cognitive function. 

  1. Skin, hair and nails 

Iron not only benefits the health of our body on the inside but also has a significant impact on what we see on the outside. It contributes to healthy skin, hair, and nails. Iron is involved in the production of collagen, a protein that provides structure and strength to these tissues. Without sufficient iron, you may experience brittle nails, hair loss, and pale, dry skin.

Causes of iron deficiency

While iron is an essential mineral, our bodies don't readily store excess amounts. This means maintaining adequate iron levels relies on a delicate balance between iron intake and absorption. When this balance is disrupted, iron deficiency can develop. Here are the common causes of iron deficiency:

  1. Poor diet

One of the most common causes of iron deficiency is a diet lacking in iron-rich foods. Iron is found in both animal and plant-based sources, but the body absorbs heme iron (from animal sources) more efficiently than non-heme iron (from plant sources). Diets that are low in iron-rich foods such as red meat, poultry, seafood, beans, and fortified cereals can lead to insufficient iron levels. Additionally, vegetarians and vegans need to be particularly mindful of their iron intake, as their diets may require careful planning to meet their iron needs.

  1. Heavy menstrual periods

Women who experience heavy menstrual periods (menorrhagia) are at an increased risk of iron deficiency. Significant blood loss during menstruation can deplete iron stores in the body, leading to anaemia. This condition is particularly prevalent in women of reproductive age and can be exacerbated by other factors such as poor diet and underlying health conditions.

  1. Pregnancy

Pregnancy significantly increases a woman's iron requirements. During pregnancy, the body needs more iron to support the growing foetus, placenta, and increased blood volume. Many pregnant women do not get enough iron from their diet alone, which can result in iron deficiency anaemia. This condition can affect both the mother and the developing baby, potentially leading to complications such as preterm delivery and low birth weight.

  1. Gastrointestinal disorders

Certain gastrointestinal disorders can impair the body’s ability to absorb iron from food. Conditions such as celiac disease, Crohn's disease, and ulcerative colitis can damage the lining of the intestine, reducing iron absorption. Additionally, surgeries that remove part of the stomach or intestines, such as gastric bypass surgery, can also lead to decreased iron absorption and subsequent deficiency.

  1. Chronic diseases

Chronic diseases, such as chronic kidney disease, cancer, and heart failure, can contribute to iron deficiency. These conditions can cause chronic inflammation, which interferes with the body’s ability to use and store iron. Additionally, some chronic diseases may lead to blood loss or reduced dietary intake, further exacerbating iron deficiency.

  1. Blood loss

Beyond heavy menstrual periods, other forms of blood loss can lead to iron deficiency. This includes gastrointestinal bleeding from ulcers, haemorrhoids, or cancers, as well as frequent blood donations or surgeries that result in significant blood loss. Even minor, chronic blood loss can gradually deplete iron stores over time.
These signs and symptoms are often associated with iron deficiency anaemia, a condition where iron deficiency has progressed to impact red blood cell production. However, you can also have an iron deficiency without necessarily meeting the criteria for anaemia. This early stage of deficiency may still cause some of these symptoms, and it's important to address it before it progresses further

Symptoms of iron deficiency

Recognising the symptoms of iron deficiency is crucial for early detection and treatment. While some symptoms may be subtle, others can significantly impact daily life. Here are common signs that may indicate that you’re iron deficient:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Pale or sallow skin (most noticeable in the face, inner eyelids, and nails)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Brittle nails (can also appear pale or have ridges)
  • Hair loss
  • Unusual cravings (Pica) - Pica is the term for craving and eating non-nutritive substances such as ice, dirt, clay, chalk or starch

It's important to remember that these symptoms can also be caused by other underlying conditions. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms persistently, it's crucial to consult a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and treatment.

How to identify iron deficiency early on

While a definitive diagnosis requires medical testing, there are some at-home methods that can raise a red flag and prompt you to seek professional evaluation. Here are a few ways to get a sense of your potential iron status:

  1. Be aware of physical symptoms

As we’ve highlighted earlier, iron deficiency can manifest in various physical symptoms like fatigue, shortness of breath, pale skin, and cold hands and feet. While these symptoms can have other causes, their presence, particularly if persistent, warrants a discussion with your doctor.

  1. Track your dietary iron intake

Monitoring your diet can reveal potential iron intake shortcomings. Aim for a balanced diet rich in iron-rich foods like red meat, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, leafy green vegetables, and fortified cereals. If your diet lacks these sources, you might be at higher risk of deficiency.

  1. Using iron tests

One of the most accurate ways to check for iron deficiency is through a ferritin test, which measures the level of ferritin, a protein that stores iron in your body. Low ferritin levels can indicate iron deficiency before it progresses to anaemia. Ferritin tests are available for purchase at Aussie Pharma Direct, allowing you to conveniently check your iron levels at home. Keep in mind that even after testing with the iron test kit, you should always consult with your doctor to verify if you're really iron deficient or not.

Treatment options for iron deficiency

Treating iron deficiency involves a combination of dietary changes, iron supplements, and addressing any underlying causes.

1. Dietary changes

  • Include heme iron sources from foods such as red meat, poultry, and seafood in your meals.
  • Add non-heme iron sources such as beans, lentils, tofu, spinach, and fortified cereals into your diet.
  • Pair iron with vitamin C - Vitamin C can significantly enhance the absorption of non-heme iron. Add vitamin C-rich foods like citrus fruits, tomatoes, bell peppers, and broccoli to your iron-rich meals.
  • Avoid inhibitors of iron absorption like coffee, tea, and foods high in calcium during meals.

2. Iron supplements

If dietary changes alone are not sufficient to correct iron deficiency, iron supplements may be necessary. Iron supplements come in various forms, including tablets, capsules, and liquid formulations. 

There are also other types of iron supplements that you can consider too, such as:

  • Beef bars - If you're looking for a more enjoyable way to supplement your iron intake, consider eating beef bars. Beef bars are a type of protein bar, but instead of being packed with nuts and other typical ingredients, they are literally protein-packed with meat. Chief Beef Bars are a great option to consider. They come in two delicious flavours: Chilli and Traditional. Made using organic grass-fed Aussie beef, these bars are high in protein, iron, and B12, while being low in carbs and sugar. This makes them an excellent choice for a tasty and nutritious iron boost.
  • Organ meat supplements - Alternatively, you can supplement your iron intake with organ meat supplements. Chief offers a variety of options, including beef liver supplements, beef offal, and heart and kidney supplement varieties. Organ meats, specifically beef livers, are known for their high iron content, making them a great source of this essential mineral. With Chief's organ meat supplements, which come in convenient capsule form, you can easily take your supplements without having to deal with the taste of organ meat on its own. This makes it a practical option for those who want the benefits of organ meats but prefer not to eat them directly.
3. Addressing underlying causes

    If an underlying condition like heavy menstrual bleeding, chronic blood loss, or digestive issues is contributing to iron deficiency, treating that condition will be crucial to prevent future deficiencies.

    4. Intravenous iron (In severe cases)

      In severe cases where oral iron supplements are ineffective or poorly tolerated, intravenous iron therapy might be considered. This involves administering iron directly into a vein.


      Iron is a vital mineral that plays a central role in keeping our bodies functioning optimally. It fuels cellular processes, ensures proper oxygen delivery throughout the body, and even contributes to healthy skin, hair, and nails. However, iron deficiency is a common problem that can significantly impact our energy levels, overall health, and appearance.

      The good news is that iron deficiency is often preventable and treatable. By understanding the symptoms, common causes, and treatment options, you can take proactive steps to maintain healthy iron levels.

      If you suspect you might be iron deficient, don't hesitate to consult your doctor. Early detection and intervention are key to addressing the deficiency and preventing complications.

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