Fact checked by Aimee McNew for Accuracy
Most of us know that iron is an essential mineral needed by the blood.
It’s commonly talked about for women, especially those who are pregnant or postpartum.
But iron is needed by all humans to maintain healthy oxygenation of the blood. When too little iron is in the body, the condition is known as anemia.
This affects more than 3 million people and is the most common blood disorder. (1)
What is Iron?
Iron is a mineral that is considered essential. It carries oxygen in the hemoglobin of the red blood cells, providing energy to the body.
It removes carbon dioxide, too. When not enough iron is present, body energy levels are significantly affected and decreased.
Unlike some nutrients, iron is plentiful in food sources, but because of higher amounts required by certain age groups (like women and girls between ages 14 and 50, or those who are pregnant), it can still be a common nutrient shortfall.
Babies also need iron and rely on the mother’s breastmilk or formula for provision.
Without enough iron, brain development in the first year of life, as well as growth, can be impacted, especially in the first six months.
How Much Iron Is Needed Each Day?
Iron needs vary by age and sex, as well as stage of life. Iron requirements include:
- Children ages 1-3: 7 mg
- Children ages 4-8: 10 mg
- Children ages 9-13: 8 mg
- Males ages 14-18: 11 mg
- Females ages 14-18: 15 mg
- Males 19 and older: 8 mg
- Females ages 19-50: 18 mg
- Females ages 51 and older: 8 mg
5 Essential Health Benefits of Iron
Not only is iron essential for healthy blood, it’s also needed for numerous other aspects of health.
These are the top researched reasons why you need to make sure you have enough iron in your body.
1. Energy Levels
Without enough iron in the blood, overall body energy levels will suffer. This is because less iron means less oxygen being transported through the body to the cells.
Your mental and physical performance will be noticeably lower if your iron stores are not adequate.
If you suffer from low energy and think iron could be to blame, taking a supplement is not always the answer.
Focusing on boosting iron-rich foods in the diet (included below) can often be helpful. Your doctor will let you know if you need a supplement and, if so, how much you should take.
When a woman gets pregnant, it’s a nutritionally demanding time for her in many different ways.
Blood volume more than doubles during the course of gestation and red blood cell production rapidly increases, too.
This is essential to supply the growing baby with oxygen, nutrients, and everything it needs to grow into a fully-developed human.
Iron needs during pregnancy increase in proportion to the rise in red blood cells.
Thankfully, the body is good at optimizing how it absorbs iron during pregnancy and tries to extract as much as possible from existing dietary intake.
Iron is also found in most prenatal vitamins. However, some pregnant women don’t eat enough or have trouble absorbing it and can experience anemia.
OBGYNs and other healthcare providers typically test iron levels a few times during a pregnancy.
When a mother runs low on iron during pregnancy, it can impact how well the baby grows and could lead to a smaller birth weight.
It could also increase the chance of going into labor early, before 37 weeks. Extremely low levels have been associated with cognitive changes in development.
Women who are pregnant and low in iron may get sick more frequently, too, since it is needed to support immunity.
Research shows that iron is a required nutrient for normal function of the immune system.
While most people think of vitamin C and zinc for avoiding sickness or for staying healthy, iron is every bit as essential.
Without enough iron in the blood, the immune system will lack the ability to mount a proper defense against an infection.
Iron is required for immune cell replication, which fights viral or bacterial invaders.
Too little iron could result in too little immune cells or cells which are immature and unable to properly fight the infection.
If you’re sick, this doesn’t mean suddenly boost your iron intake or take a bunch of supplements.
Instead, it shows a need for maintaining good iron stores all along, not just when sickness shows itself.
4. Body Temperature
People who are low in iron tend to feel constantly colder and can’t ever seem to get warm enough.
While there are other things that can cause this, if you’re a woman who seems to always feel cold, you have thyroid disease, or other hormone problems, ask your doctor to check your iron levels.
5. Athletic Stamina
Athletes and active people need healthy iron stores to be good at what they do.
Oxygenated cells helps produce athletic stamina and energy and with too little iron, cells won’t be able to get as much oxygen.
This is particularly true of female athletes between the ages of 14 and 50.
7 Signs You Could Be Low in Iron or Anemic
How do you know if what you’re experiencing could be due to low iron stores or levels?
Symptoms will often present themselves, but it is also possible to be low in iron for a long time before any signs show up.
Common signs of iron deficiency, low levels, or anemia include:
1. Fatigue That Isn’t Normal
It’s normal to feel tired for many reasons. There are even natural reasons to have unusually high levels of tiredness for a short time, such as illness.
However, when fatigue becomes unrelenting, is new and lasts a long time, or is associated with other factors, like chronic illness or thyroid disorders, low iron levels could be to blame.
This is also true of a very tired postpartum woman, and even women who are pregnant.
Feeling extremely tired all the time is one of the most commonly recognized symptoms of being low in iron.
More than 50 percent of people who are deficient have this symptom.
Without enough iron, hemoglobin levels also drop, and the amount of energy and oxygen that can be carried through the body is severely restricted.
2. Shortness of Breath or Being Easily Winded
Iron and hemoglobin transport oxygen in the body, and without enough oxygen, you will struggle to feel like you can fully breathe if your iron levels are low.
Not the same as asthma, where your actual lungs are impacted, you will just feel a general need to take deep breaths more often or will sigh a lot more.
You might feel excessively tired after low or minimal exertion or may be unable to do things like jog, exercise, or lift heavy objects without feeling extremely winded or breathless.
3. Pale Skin or Complexion
Because iron plays a large role in the skin’s ability to circulate oxygen, blood that has too little oxygen can tend to make skin look pale or even bluish.
While this could be caused for other reasons, it is another extremely common symptom of iron-deficiency anemia, typically when levels have become really low or been low for a longer amount of time.
Having too little iron in the body can lead to headaches. It can also increase feelings of dizziness, lightheadedness, or feeling generally sluggish in the brain.
Headaches or other brain-related symptoms are caused by the decreased amount of oxygen being transported in the blood to the brain.
There are many triggers for headaches, but if other issues have been ruled out or the headaches frequently recur, getting your iron levels tested could provide some insight.
5. Dry Skin and Brittle Hair
Changes to skin and hair can indicate iron deficiency or low iron stores. Hair and skin that don’t get enough oxygen from the blood become dull, dry, and lackluster.
Skin can appear dry and grayish, while hair can break off easily, fall out, or grow very slowly.
6. Restless Legs
Restless legs syndrome can be caused by several factors, but low iron levels is a common reason.
It presents itself especially at night when you’re trying to rest and may result in the constant need to fidget or feeling out of control of one’s leg movements.
Research finds that one-quarter of people with restless leg problems also have iron deficiency or anemia.
7. Heart Palpitations
When you’re aware of your heart beating, especially at an odd or seemingly off-balanced rhythm, it is known as heart palpitations.
These can be caused by many reasons, and if you notice them you need to speak with your doctor.
Without enough oxygen in the blood, the heart (which is a muscle) can function erratically and can even feel sluggish because it has to work much harder to pump blood through veins and arteries that don’t have enough iron or oxygen.
What Causes Iron Deficiency Anemia?
Low levels of iron is not the only reason someone can be anemic (for example, low levels of vitamin B12 can also show signs of anemia), but it is the world’s most common reason.
Typical causes of iron-deficiency anemia include:
- Poor dietary intake
- Poor digestive health that limits absorption
- Poor gut health that limits absorption
- Restricted or limited diet, such as being vegan
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Other chronic or autoimmune disorders
- Pregnancy and postpartum
- Heavy menstrual periods
- Medical conditions associated with internal bleeding
How to Naturally Address Anemia
Anemia is a common health issue across the world.
It can most often be resolved with dietary changes, but some cases may also need supplementation to more quickly restore levels.
A combination of food and supplements is often the most natural way to address anemia.
Foods Rich in Iron
There are many sources of food that are rich in iron. There are, however, two different types of iron: heme and nonheme.
Heme iron is found in food sources like red meat, poultry, and seafood. Nonheme iron is found in plant foods and any foods that are fortified with iron nutrients.
The body can absorb both types of iron and can use both to address deficiency, but heme iron from meat and seafood absorbs best.
The best foods to eat when trying to boost iron levels include:
1. Red Meat and Organ Meats
Beef, bison, and lamb are excellent sources of heme iron and are easily absorbed by the body. Additionally, beef and chicken liver are also great sources of iron.
While most might feel squeamish about eating organ meats, when they’re prepared with red meat or chicken dishes, the taste is masked and all of the health benefits are still there.
Chicken and turkey have some heme iron, but not nearly as much as red meats. Boosting iron levels through poultry alone will take longer.
Pair poultry with plant-based sources of iron for an additional boost.
Not all seafood contains heme iron, but types that are good sources include shrimp, clams, and oysters.
Sardines, tuna, and salmon are also good choices for boosting iron in the diet.
4. Dark Leafy Greens
Rich in nonheme iron, dark leafy greens like spinach, kale, dandelion greens, Swiss chard, and collard greens are all great to eat when trying to boost iron levels.
However, because these all provide nonheme sources, you won’t be able to boost iron levels from leafy greens alone.
Pairing them with foods that are rich in vitamin C can help to increase absorption, too.
Foods like bell peppers, oranges and other citrus fruits, and strawberries are all high in vitamin C.
5. Nuts and Seeds
While not all nuts and seeds contain iron, pumpkin seeds, cashews, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, and pistachios are great sources.
How to Supplement with Iron
Sometimes when iron levels are low, supplementation is needed to more rapidly correct the imbalance.
This should always be done under a doctor’s direction since you can get too much iron in the body, usually only from improper supplementation doses.
Most multivitamin supplements contain iron, with those aimed at pregnancy or women’s health having higher levels than generalized ones.
This is because women have a higher need for iron than men do.
Supplemental iron comes in different forms. Ferrous and ferric iron salts are the most common.
Ferrous iron absorbs better and is considered to be higher quality.
The downside of iron supplementation is that it is commonly associated with nausea, constipation, and other digestive upset.
Your doctor will recommend a product that works for you if you have problems with one type.
Iron supplements won’t absorb as well when they’re taken with calcium foods or supplements, either.
Sadly, most multivitamins contain both iron and calcium, which typically means the iron from your multivitamin is not going as far as it could.
This article was fact checked for accuracy by Aimee McNew, MNT, a certified nutritionist. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Lieu PT, Heiskala M, Peterson PA, Yang Y. The roles of iron in health and disease. Mol Aspects Med. 2001;2:1–87.
Askwith C, Kaplan J. Iron and copper transport in yeast and its relevance to human disease. Trends Biochem Sci. 1998;23:135–8.
Muir A, Hopfer U. Regional specificity of iron uptake by small intestinal brush-boarder membranes from normal and iron deficient mice. Am J Physiol. 1985;248:G376–9.
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Aimee McNew, MNT, CNTP, is a certified nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, thyroid problems, infertility, and digestive wellness. She ate her way back to health using a Paleo diet, lost 80 pounds, and had a healthy baby after numerous miscarriages. She focuses on simple nutrition practices that promote long-lasting results.