Top Signs of Iron Deficiency and How To Increase Iron Levels In Your Blood

Top Signs of Iron Deficiency and How To Increase Iron Levels In Your Blood
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An iron deficiency can make you feel constantly tired, lack energy, have a pale complexion, or suffer from frequent headaches. A lack of iron in the body can be caused when you don’t consume enough iron-rich foods, when your body can’t absorb enough iron, or you have blood loss. If your body doesn’t have enough iron, it can’t make enough hemoglobin – part of the red blood cells that carry oxygen through the body. The result of an iron deficiency can by anemia, tiredness, and shortness of breath.

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If you have low iron levels, then it’s important to check your diet to make sure that it contains enough iron. One of the best ways to increase your iron level is to consume iron-rich foods. The best foods to boost levels of iron in your body are leafy green vegetables, beef, chicken liver, and oysters. It is also possible to prevent an iron deficiency by taking iron supplements. However, if you decide to use iron supplements, it’s important to speak with your doctor who will check if you have low iron. This is to prevent the side effects of having too much iron in your body.

Iron deficiencies often affect infants and children, women who lose a lot of blood through menstruation, vegetarians, and frequent blood donors.

In this article, you will learn about how to recognize the signs of an iron deficiency. You can also find out what causes low iron levels in the blood and how to increase iron levels naturally. This information can help you avoid the health consequences of too little iron and help prevent iron deficiency anemia.

Signs of Iron Deficiency

In many people, the signs of an iron deficiency can be so mild that it goes unnoticed. Many people put feelings of tiredness, weakness, or headaches down to the stresses of daily life. According to the Mayo Clinic, other signs that your body is lacking iron are:1

  • Pale skin
  • Chest pains
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Brittle nails
  • Poor appetite
  • Inflammation of your tongue

If you suspect an iron deficiency in yourself or your child, you should see a doctor who will perform a blood test to check iron levels. Other possible tests to check for anemia are MCHC blood test (concentration of hemoglobin in blood cells) RDW blood test, and MCH blood test. Your doctor will also make sure that if you have low iron levels, these aren’t caused by a more serious medical condition like internal bleeding.

Causes of iron deficiency

There are a number of factors that can cause an iron deficiency leading to anemia. Although anyone can suffer from iron deficiency anemia, there are some people who are more at risk than others.

Not getting enough iron from your diet. Your body needs a constant supply of iron to keep your blood healthy and circulating properly. A lack of iron from your diet will cause a deficiency, and in severe cases lead to anemia.1

Heavy menstrual periods can be a cause of iron deficiency in many women. The National Health Service (NHS) says that women are at risk of low levels of iron especially if they have heavy bleeding over consecutive menstrual cycles. This results in the loss of more red blood cells than the body can produce.2

Pregnancy can be a cause of developing iron deficiency. The NHS explains that during pregnancy extra oxygen and nutrients are required for the baby’s blood supply. This can often cause low iron levels.2

Abnormal bleeding associated with some diseases can cause an iron deficiency to develop. Dr. Todd Gersten, hematologist from the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, says that stomach ulcers or cancers in the digestive tract can cause internal bleeding leading to anemia. The long-term use of aspirin, ibuprofen or other medicines can thin the stomach lining leading to bleeding and a loss of iron.3

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If your body can’t absorb enough iron from your diet, then you could suffer from the symptoms of a lack of iron. This can be caused by various conditions like celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, or inflammation of the esophagus.2

How much iron do we need to consume a day?

It’s important to eat a well-balanced diet to get the required number of vitamins and minerals to keep your body in good health. According to doctors at the National Institutes of Health, the recommended daily intake of iron is as follows:4

  • Infants 7 – 12 months: 11 mg.
  • Children ages 1 – 13: 7 mg – 10 mg.
  • Women ages 14 – 50: 15 mg – 18 mg.
  • Women who are pregnant: 27 mg.
  • Men ages 14 – 50: 8 mg – 11 mg.
  • Men and women over 50: 8 mg.

How to Improve Iron Absorption from Food

Even if you are eating enough foods containing iron, you could still have an iron deficiency if your body can’t absorb enough of this mineral.

Dr. Christine Mikstas on WebMD says that consuming foods containing vitamin C along with iron-rich foods can help you get more iron from your food. Some rich sources of vitamin C are green leafy vegetables, broccoli, and bell peppers.5

What can interfere with iron absorption?

Some foods, although healthy in themselves, can actually interfere with iron absorption. Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that calcium-rich and fiber-containing foods, spinach, eggs, and milk can decrease the amount of iron the body absorbs.6

For example: Oxalic acid found in many green vegetables may delay the absorption of iron. Spinach is very rich in oxalic acid which binds to the iron and interferes with iron absorption.

Also phytic acid, which is found mostly in whole grains, may interfere with iron absorption. So although whole grains are a good source of iron themselves, the phytic acid they contain can stop your body absorbing iron from other foods and supplements.

Dr. Mikstas also recommends to avoid drinking coffee or tea along with iron-rich foods.5 Drinking tea, coffee, and even eating chocolate interferes with iron absorption due to their high content of polyphenols, as well as calcium which is found in dairy products.

How to Increase Iron Levels in Your Blood

One of the best ways to avoid an iron deficiency is to get enough iron from a varied and well-balanced diet. Depending on the cause and severity of your low iron levels, you may also need to supplement your diet with iron.

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Here are the best ways to increase iron levels in your blood to address an iron deficiency or prevent levels of iron in your blood dropping.

Incorporate iron-rich foods in your diet

Dietary iron is found in two forms:

  • Heme iron. This type of iron is found in lean red meat, poultry, and fish. Heme iron is easily absorbed into the body.
  • Nonheme iron. Nonheme iron is poorly absorbed into the body. Cereals, broccoli, legumes, brown rice, nuts and seeds all contain nonheme iron.

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic recommend consuming food rich in vitamin C along with nonheme iron-rich foods. This will increase the amount of iron your body gets from cereals, beans, and other nonheme iron vegetables.

Animal sources of iron

Dietary sources of iron from animals contains heme iron. This is easily absorbed into the body and is the most common source of iron from the diet to help to increase iron levels. According to Dr. Christine Mikstas on WebMD, iron-rich foods from animal sources are:7

  • Beef
  • Chicken liver
  • Seafood like clams, mussels, or oysters
  • Canned sardines in oil

Other sources of iron from animal products, but with significantly less iron per ounce are poultry, fish, ham, and veal.

Vegetable sources of iron

Iron derived from plants is nonheme iron and is poorly absorbed into the body. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, then it’s important to supplement your diet with vitamin C.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that vitamin C has an enhancing effect on nonheme iron absorption in the body. The researchers found that vitamin C can help to increase iron bioavailability by up to 7%.8

Dr. Mikstas on WebMD says that good plant and vegetable sources of iron are:5

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  • Cooked beans
  • Kale
  • Pumpkin or sesame seeds
  • Dried apricots
  • Baked potatoes
  • Split peas
  • Nuts
  • Broccoli
  • Bread
  • Brown rice

Buy iron-enriched foods

Many people who want to increase their levels of iron, especially if they don’t eat animal products, buy iron-enriched foods. For example, many breakfast cereals and breads are fortified with iron and can help boost your iron levels.

The journal Nutrients reported that in countries where iron deficiency anemia is a major problem, iron-enriched foods are used. The introduction of foods fortified with iron has helped to reduce complications of anemia in children.9

Cook with cast iron cookware

Another way to increase your iron levels naturally and help prevent the symptoms of anemia is to use cast iron cookware. When you heat food in a metal container, some of the metal leaches into the food and affects it. This is one reason why you should never cook with aluminum cookware.

The British Dietetic Association recommended cooking with iron pots to help reduce iron deficiencies. Researchers found that cooking food in iron cookware increases the hemoglobin concentration in people with iron deficiencies. The study concluded that using iron pots for preparing food is a way to reduce iron deficiency.10

Boost iron levels with supplements

Taking iron supplements can help to prevent anemia and increase iron levels. PubMed Health reported on reviews showing that supplements containing iron can help women who are anemic due to heavy menstrual bleeding or who are pregnant.11

To reduce the side effects of iron supplementation like constipation, nausea, abdominal discomfort and change in stool color. The report suggests that some women take iron supplement intermittently. However, in comparison with daily supplementation, taking iron supplements intermittently is less effective in preventing or controlling anemia.

Check Vitamin B12 Levels

Anemia can also develop due to vitamin B12 deficiency, as vitamin B12 is essential to make red blood cells and carry oxygen through your body.

Dr. Gregory Thompson on WebMD says that as well as causing anemia, a vitamin B12 deficiency can also lead to nerve damage and affect memory and thinking. Drinking alcohol and some medicines can also cause vitamin B12 levels to drop.12  

Good sources of vitamin B12 that can help prevent anemia are beef liver, clams, rainbow trout, chicken breast, and fortified cereals with B12.

Read my other related articles:

Article Sources:
  1. MayoClinic. Iron deficiency anemia.
  2. NHS. Iron deficiency anemia – causes.
  3. MedlinePlus. Iron deficiency anemia.
  4. ODS. Iron.
  5. WebMD. Iron-rich foods.
  6. MayoClinic. Iron supplement.
  7. WebMD. Iron-rich foods.
  8. Am J Clin Nutr. 1990 Apr;51(4):649-55.
  9. Nutrients. 2016 Aug; 8(8): 494.
  10. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2003 Aug;16(4):275-81.
  11. PubMedHealth. Iron supplements
  12. WebMD. Vitamin B12 deficiency anemia.
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33 Responses to Top Signs of Iron Deficiency and How To Increase Iron Levels In Your Blood

  1. Jasna says:

    Hello,

    I’ve just read your article and i have remembered that in my fridge i got something i made to increase iron in my blood. It’s a receipt my mother gave me and it’s very good.

    You need:
    250g nettle seeds
    250g raw almond (grind)
    700-800g meadow honey
    7-8 lemons juice

    You mix it all in one big jar and place it in a fridge. Take 2-3 teaspoons once a day before the meal. It’s healthy and yummi 🙂

    (Since this is a big quantity you might want to start with smaller, i used only 70g of nettle seeds that i’ve had at home)

    I hope you like it 🙂

  2. Christina Carsrud says:

    I would like to email this article to a friend that is not on facebook, how do I do this

  3. Joyce Schafers says:

    The Floradix supplement by Flora is an excellent liquid organic supplement made with natural ingredients. I gave it to my premature newborn and her iron levels balanced out within a couple of days. And the best part….it’s not a synthetic supplement. YAY! Also, organic black strap molasses is excellent too.

  4. Terry says:

    The two highest plant based foods to eat for iron are wild nori seaweed and wild dulse seaweed. You can get both of these radiation free seaweeds from Ocean Harvest.

  5. Sally says:

    Apricots are a good source of iron for vegans.

  6. Barbara says:

    What do you do if some one is on tube feeding 24/7. And nothing but clear liquids by mouth. How do you increase blood levels with this situation????

    • Jenny says:

      I’m not sure Barbara. Obviously this person has a special medical condition and that requires a medical consultation.

  7. Kel says:

    Do not bleed while breast feeding? I have endometriosis and bleed every month, heavily, while exclusively breast feeding for seven months.

  8. Janet says:

    If you suspect you are low in iron you should tell your doctor and request a blood test. As you said, if you don’t need the extra iron but take to much it can be damaging. My husband had to be tested because his liver enzymes were elevated. Sometimes self diagnosing ourselves can be dangerous, especially if it affects our liver! I would not supplement without not being sure I needed it. It’s not the risk!!

  9. bob says:

    My wife has ovarian cancer,she was told she is anemic and needs iron what specfic food are the best for this type of disease.

    • Jenny says:

      Hi Bob, food sources of iron are divided into two groups: animal source like red meat, poultry, internal parts (such as heart and liver), eggs yolks and seafood, and vegetable source such as legumes, nuts and almonds, tahini, dried fruit, and green leafy vegetables such as parsley. There are also iron-fortified foods like cereals or bread. I’m don’t know if your wife has any food restrictions due to her condition, but I guess it’s best to consult with her doctor to be on the safe side of things. Wishing your wife a full and quick recovery.

  10. Stacy says:

    this whole article is confusing. I suffer from iron deficiency. Every 4-6months I have to get an iron transfusion as a result. In the meantime, I cook in an iron skillet, take sublingual b-12, plant based vitamins, fish oil, raw nuts ands seeds, an occasion steak, but mostly a green leafy diet as it’s very high in iron. I can’t take iron supplements as the give me severe gas, stomach pains and constipation.
    So, I’m confused about the green leafy vegetables preventing the absorption of iron even though it’s high in iron. Are you saying all these veggies I eat are for nothing? Also, you mentioned eating vitamin c fruit with an iron supplement. I know that this makes iron easier on the stomach, but would this help with the iron in leafy greens? I drink alit of green smoothies that has Vit c rich fruit in it- does that help with the iron absorbtion?

    • Jenny says:

      Hi Stacy, as mentioned in the article, plant foods are inferior when it comes to iron absorption in comparison to animal foods. This is because in animal foods iron is often attached to proteins called heme proteins, and referred to as heme iron. In plant foods, the iron is not attached to heme proteins and is classified as non-heme iron. The absorption rate of heme iron (animal food) is usually higher and more efficient than that of non-heme iron (plant based foods). Some plant base foods are not rich enough in vitamin C, hence the recommendation to add vitamin C to aid iron absorption (the example of lentil soup with chopped parsley and red pepper). As for leafy greens, fortunately, many vegetables, such as broccoli and bok choy, which are high in iron, are also high in vitamin C so that the iron in these foods is very well absorbed.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Stacey, may I make a few suggestions for you and anyone else in a similar position. Anyone with iron deficiency should be checked for MTHFR.. It’s a gene mutation that affects how our body processes b12 and folate. If you have the gene mutations you cannot process folic acid and synthetic forms of the b vitamins. This all affects how you absorb iron as well. I struggled with my iron for 20 years until I found out that I had this issue. I have since started taking supplements with the methylated forms of b and an organic iron and my levels are heading back to normal for the first time in 20 years. My biggest issue now is heavy periods but I’m better able to keep on top of it most of the time since changing supplements. If you have the genes, they will also have to review the type of infusion you are given. Hope this helps.

    • Brittney says:

      If your iron to low can that be reason I can’t get pregnant

  11. Shannon says:

    I suffer from iron deficiency. Every 4-6months I have to get an iron transfusion as a result.My Doctor has now told me that because of my heavy periods that he will not do Iron shots, Iron Infusions or Iron Transfusion anymore because my body is losing more blood then it is making. I feel so sick and helpless now and don’t know what to do. My Doctor has given me a short list of choices but they all suck. He suggested hormone pills but also said the would react with other medications I take so I don’t think that is a good idea for me. He also suggested birth control pills or IUD, I am in my late 30s and still want the option of having kids, those options will not work for me either. The last option was to remove my uterus,cervix or both, I do not want to do that at all. I am upset, and don’t know what to do, I have been reading up on natural ways to get more Iron and make my periods less heavy but have found nothing so far. I am so sick now, I have to make a decision soon but hate all the options I have. If anyone has any suggestions it would be greatly appreciated.

    • Giuliana says:

      Shannon, try blackstrap molasses. Put a tablespoon of it in a cup of hot water and drink as tea, ypu can add a little milk, though almond milk would be better. Dairy in cow’s milk interferes with iron absorption. I have used blackstrap molasses for heavy periods (it actually helps to lessen the flow) and it has iron, magnesium and potassium. I was severely anemic years ago and in 3 months my iron levels were up to normal. Also used it while I was pregnant and still use wh r never periods are heavy. Have you tried supplements? Sorry, I didn’t get that part. Well, if you are sensitive to them as most people are, you may want to try Blood Builder by Mega food. As soon as I started it, I felt like I had more energy and iron level went up. I have history of anemia due to heavy periods as well. Hope this helps a little. Good luck.

    • He is an on time God says:

      I have used Black strap molasses for a while and it really does work. You need to use organic unsulphered BSM. You will bleed more with sulpher.

  12. juliet says:

    I am eight months pregnant and my pcv is low 31 precisely. What do I do to help situation.

    • Jenny says:

      Hi Juliet, I believe that pregnant women should consult with a doctor (I’m not a doctor) due to their special condition.

  13. Kelly Snyder says:

    I liked your article very much. Curious what you might think about this, would Shoofly Pie qualify as a good way to intake molasses? (Not to eat a whole pie, but a slice.) The molasses is baked with flour, brown sugar, some shortening, one egg, water and baking soda, all in a pie crust. Do you think the molasses is not still a reliable source of iron after baking? Just curious, I hadn’t ever thought about Shoofly Pie as a possible source of iron from molasses before.

    • Jenny says:

      Cooking or baking doesn’t reduce the amounts of iron in the food. Blackstrap molasses is a rich source of the type of iron found in plant foods, and since vitamin C helps your body absorb iron from plant sources, it’s recommended to eat foods high in vitamin C alongside blackstrap molasses, so maybe add some strawberries to the shoofly pie…

    • Sue says:

      Also craving ice is another sign of anemia

  14. Marcia Schachner says:

    My husband had surgery for esophageal cancer in 2008. Most people die, but he survived so far. The surgery involved removing his esophagus except for the very top part and 1/3 of his stomach. The malignancy was at the junction between the esophagus and stomach. It has been a rough road. Recently a problem occurred with his iron level so low that he needed iron infusions. He had been feeling exhausted sleeping all of the time. The over the counter iron supplements were tried and did not work. The hematologist/oncologist has not given us a clear idea of how to treat this other than the iron infusions. It appears to be an absorption problem. He is mostly a vegetarian and likes eggs, tofu, chicken, and salads. You have given some good suggestions such as molasses, nuts, etc. You also said that vitamin C is needed to aid absorption. Some good suggestions. We are very worried about this problem. Any other suggestions? Marcia

  15. Simone says:

    I have been feeing just terriable for a while now – had my iron blood tested – my iron level came back at 9 – apart from iron tablets what can be do – I feed up with feeing so tiered / dizzy / and just no energy.

  16. Darlene Vandenberghe says:

    My iron was 9 and then I took 2 ferramax for one month which brought it up to 10. I now take 2 ferramax and 1 Eurofer and that brought my level up to 11 which is still way too low. I feel very tired and have headaches, daily. What can I take besides vitamin tablets?

    • Jenny says:

      While iron is needed for the formation of red blood cells, there are other vitamins that are needed for your body to make red blood cells, for example folate and vitamin B12 are also essential for red blood cell production, and a lack of either of these can result in anemia. Read my article about Warning Symptoms of Vitamin B12 Deficiency, and talk to your doctor as you may need to have your blood tested to see if there are other deficiencies that cause of your anemia.

    • Crystal says:

      Hello Darlene, I am having the same issue except I’m 30 wks pregnant. I had my iron tested in June and it was 109 3 months later it was 107. The safe zone for iron is 113 and above. I take 3 ferramax pills a day and I get a B12 shot once a month and I don’t feel any better either. I get tested again this month. I’m praying for an increase of numbers. I was told to eat a piece of liver a day.

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