Iron Deficiency and Your Health


Iron is an important component in the creation of a protein in our blood called hemoglobin which is what makes blood red.  It is responsible for getting oxygen to all the tissues in our body.  Iron is also in the protein called myoglobin which supplies oxygen to the muscles in our body.  It goes to say then that if we don’t have enough iron in our blood we don’t get enough oxygen to our brain or muscles which we need for energy.  Adequate iron is also a vital component to a healthy immune system.

Women and children are the groups of people statistically to be most likely low in iron.  If you are a vegetarian, vegan or enjoy intense exercise your needs will be higher.  If you are vegetarian/vegan + female + likes intense exercise you are at a three fold risk for having low iron stores so this is a very important topic for you… please read on.

The first thing to understand about iron is that is comes in two different forms, heme iron and non-heme iron.  Heme iron comes from animal sources and non-heme comes from the plant kingdom (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts).  The important difference here is that heme iron is much more easily absorbed by the body than non-heme iron is.  Because of the low absorption of non-heme iron it is said that vegetarians and vegans should have 1.8 x more the daily recommended amount than consumers of heme iron.

Here are the recommended amounts from my local health district:

Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Iron (Daily)
Age (years) Men Women
1 to 3 7 mg 7 mg
4 to 8 10 mg 10 mg
9 to 13 8 mg 8 mg
14 to 18 11 mg 15 mg
19 to 49 8 mg 18 mg
Over 50 8 mg 8 mg
Pregnancy N/A 27 mg
Breastfeeding under 19 N/A 10 mg
Breastfeeding 19 and over N/A 9 mg


Daily Iron Recommendations for Vegetarians/Vegans
Age (years) Men Women
14 to 18 20 mg 27 mg
19 to 49 14 mg 33 mg
50 and above 14 mg 14 mg
Pregnancy N/A 49 mg

mg = milligrams

Source: Health Link BC

It is important to know that it takes time to start showing symptoms in iron deficiency.  It is over time that your internal reserves of iron are depleted as the body uses them up when not receiving adequate amounts thru the diet.  When the internal reserves are gone your body’s ability to make new red blood cells both in quantity and proper size will be reduced and oxygen transport goes down. Less oxygen carried by red blood cells means less oxygen getting to your muscles and brain, which will make you feel fatigued both in energy and cognitive abilities.

Point in check: When you start to feel run down and starting to show symptoms, your back up supplies of iron are already severely depleted.

When iron deficiency reaches a certain point it becomes anemia – the condition of having a lower-than-normal number of red blood cells or quantity of hemoglobin.  A condition that diminishes the capacity of the blood to carry oxygen.

You can ask your blood to be checked by your doctor to see if you have an iron deficiency or are anemic.  Iron  deficiency  is  determined  by  testing  your  ferritin  level  and anemia is diagnosed by testing your hemoglobin level.


The symptoms of moderate to severe iron deficiency anemia include:

  • general fatigue
  • irritability
  • poor concentration
  • insomnia
  • weakness
  • pale washed out complexion
  • severe  menstrual  cramps
  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • a tingling or crawling feeling in the legs (restless legs syndrome)
  • tongue swelling, soreness or pale in colour
  • cold hands and feet
  • fast or irregular heartbeat
  • brittle or pitted nails
  • headaches
  • chest pain
  • low immunity (recurring illness, slow healing, infections)
  • frequent injuries
  • poor appetite
  • loss of endurance and power in exercise
  • strange cravings to eat items that aren’t food, such as dirt, ice, or clay

Many people can be low in iron for years with mild to moderate symptoms and never know the cause.  Often  athletes or regular gym goers can mistake iron deficiency symptoms as signs of overtraining because of the similarities.

Did you know that regular participation in intensive workouts can increase your body’s requirements for iron?
It has been said that the dietary iron requirements for athletes can be 1.3 to 1.7 times higher than non-athletes.

It is especially true for long distance runners.  In addition to other factors of iron depletion in athletes such as gastrointestinal tract micro bleeding, loss of iron thru increased sweat volume and urine, there is something among runners called heel strike anemia or footstrike hemolysis.  This occurs in endurance runners when the impact of the foot as it strikes the ground surface causes damage to red blood cells in that area.  This can occur even if  a well-designed and well-constructed shoe is worn.

The average person who goes to the gym and works out moderately will not lose enough iron through sweat or other causes for it to significantly affect their iron status, but it is something to keep in mind if you are training hard.

What is your iron status? … it would be good to find out.  I hope you found this article informative and through greater awareness we can decrease one of the most common nutritional deficiencies.

Health Hugs!

PS Stay tuned for my next post on iron rich sources of food and ways to increase absorption of this essential mineral.

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