Why is iron so important for your health?
Iron is an essential mineral for your body and is found in a range of foods. It is needed for your mental and physical health and to keep your energy levels up.1–3
Iron is present in a substance called haemoglobin, which is found in red blood cells. Haemoglobin carries oxygen in the blood from the lungs to the rest of the body.4
Iron is also needed to maintain a healthy immune system, helping you to fight off infections.5
What happens if you don’t get enough iron?
If the iron levels in your body are low you can become iron deficient. The recommended levels for iron in the body are different for different people, depending on age and gender.6
Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world.7 More than 3 million Australians are affected by iron deficiency.8 Over time, iron deficiency can mean that your body makes fewer healthy red blood cells, a condition known as Iron Deficiency Anaemia (IDA). There are many symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia, however, one of the main signs is feeling fatigued or exhausted 1 because your blood is less able to transport oxygen around your body.4
If iron deficiency is not treated there can be long-term consequences for your health. Fatigue and other symptoms of iron deficiency can also lower your quality of life and reduce your ability to concentrate and be productive at work.3
Apart from fatigue, the other symptoms of iron deficiency include:
Are you getting enough iron?
Balancing the supply and demand for iron in your body is important to maintain good health. Normally your iron levels remain in balance, with iron from your diet replacing the iron
stores used up by your body.1 The iron in your food is absorbed into the bloodstream in your small intestine.1 The supply and demand for iron in your body can become unbalanced for a number of reasons and this can lead to iron deficiency.
A decreased supply of iron to your body can be caused by:
- A lack of iron in your diet. Iron can be found in both animal products and plant foods. Iron from animal products (known as haem iron) is better absorbed by your body than iron from plant foods (known as non-haem iron).1 If you are vegetarian or vegan it is more likely that you will not be getting enough iron.2 Choosing iron-rich foods can help to keep your iron levels up.
- Iron from your food not being absorbed properly in your small intestine. If you have Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis) or coeliac disease, then the lining of your small intestine may be inflamed. This means that less iron can be absorbed from your food into your bloodstream.3–5
An increased demand for iron may be caused by:
- Blood loss, for example as a result of: heavy periods2, internal bleeding from your gut (gastro-intestinal bleeding)3, frequent blood donation6, traumatic injuries/accidents7,8, bariatric or hip fracture surgery7,9,10
- Increased demand for red blood cells or oxygen in your body, for example as a result of: Intense exercise11, growth and development in children and adolescents1, pregnancy2
- Chronic inflammation in diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease or rheumatoid arthritis: if you have a condition that involves chronic inflammation, your immune system can block the release of iron from your body’s iron stores, reducing the amount of iron available to make red blood cells.12
If you are not getting enough iron, you might find yourself lacking in energy and feeling exhausted day after day. While there are other symptoms of iron deficiency, extreme tiredness or fatigue is often reported by patients.4
Do you feel more than just tired?
Everyone can feel tired from time to time, but if you feel exhausted every day, it may be that you are suffering from fatigue. How do you tell the difference between tiredness and fatigue?
A good first step towards understanding why you are feeling tired is to look at your lifestyle and daily stresses and strains. These might include:
- Lack of exercise.1–3
- Lack of sleep.4
- Too much physical activity.5
- Excess caffeine intake,6 or excess alcohol intake.7
- Illnesses such as colds or flu.5
If you are tired for one of these reasons, it is likely that your tiredness will not last very long and that you will feel better after exercising, resting, or getting more sleep.5
However, if you are feeling exhausted, and this continues day after day, it could be that you are “more than tired” and are suffering from fatigue. If you are experiencing fatigue, you may feel physically and mentally exhausted and lack energy for a number of days each week, even if you have not been doing any physical activities that are particularly tiring.8
Fatigue is a common symptom that people mention when they visit their doctors.9 It is a complex symptom because it can be caused by many different underlying conditions, such as:
- Iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anaemia.10
- Anaemia due to other reasons, such as low levels of vitamin B12 or folate.11
- Hormonal conditions such as hypothyroidism and diabetes.12
- Chronic fatigue syndrome, also called myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME).2
- Depression,2 and sleep problems.4
- Iron overload, known as haemochromatosis,14 where too much iron can lead to iron building up in the organs of your body.15
Because there are so many reasons why you may experience fatigue, it is important that you talk to your doctor to discuss2 how you feel in more detail. Your doctor is in the best position to diagnose fatigue and to discuss any possible treatment options with you.
If your fatigue is due to iron deficiency or iron deficiency anaemia, increasing your iron intake through your diet and, if necessary, through treatment can make you feel much better. This is why it is important to talk to your doctor and to be on the look-out for other signs that you might be iron deficient.
Other signs you might be iron deficient
Fatigue, headache and irritability are common symptoms of iron deficiency1,2. However, there are other symptoms that you may experience and you may experience more than one of these symptoms at the same time.
Apart from fatigue, the other symptoms of iron deficiency include is shown in the above diagram.
Don’t diagnose yourself. Talk to your doctor.
If you experience the symptoms listed above, or are concerned for your health in any way, it is important that you talk to your doctor to find out what the underlying problem might be.