Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States, and women are among those at greatest risk. Iron is critical for producing hemoglobin, a protein that helps red blood cells deliver oxygen throughout your body. So without it, everything suffers—and can lead to anemia. Check out these symptoms of iron deficiency and, if you have them, see your doc and request a ferritin test, which measures your body’s iron stores.
The most common symptom of iron deficiency, it’s also possibly the most difficult one to detect. “Women are so used to having frenetic lives and feeling tired,” says Nancy Berliner, MD, deputy editor of Blood, the journal of the American Society of Hematology. “They often just dismiss being tired as part of life.” However, iron deficiency causes less oxygen to reach your tissues, so your body is deprived of the energy it needs. If your “normal” fatigue is coupled with you feeling, weak, irritable, or unable to focus, iron (or a lack thereof) might have something to do with it. After all, there’s a reason people whose iron deficiency progresses into anemia are often said to have “tired blood.”
In women, the number-one cause of iron deficiency is too-heavy periods, says Jacques Moritz, MD, director of gynecology at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Roosevelt in New York City. “They lose too much blood, replace about half of it, and then lose too much again the following month,” he says. “It’s like filling up a car with a small hold in the tank.” Your period should only fill two to three tablespoons each month. Try the tampon test: If you have to change your tampon more frequently than every two hours, talk to your gyno.
There’s a reason the words “pale” and “sickly” are often used interchangeably. Hemoglobin gives your blood its red color and, thus, your skin its rosy hue. That means that low levels of the protein can suck the color straight from your skin, Dr. Moritz says. If you have a light complexion, it’s pretty easy to spot. No matter your skin tone, though, if the inside of your lips, your gums, and the inside of your bottom eyelids are less red than usual, low iron may be to blame.
No matter how deeply you breathe, if your oxygen levels are low, you’ll feel out of air, explains Dr. Berliner. If you notice yourself getting out of breath doing things that you’d normally handle just fine—be it climbing a flight or stairs or knocking out your usual workout—iron deficiency could be to blame.
Can’t stop fidgeting? About 15% of people with restless leg syndrome have iron deficiency, according to John Hopkins Medicine. The lower the iron levels, the worse the symptoms.
An iron-deficient body will prioritize getting oxygen to your brain before it worries about other tissues, but even then, your noggin will still get less than it ideally should, Dr. Berliner says. In response, the brain’s arteries can swell, causing headaches, according to the National Headache Foundation.