6 Weird Signs You're Not Getting Enough Iron

6 Weird Signs You're Not Getting Enough Iron
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By Kasandra Brabaw, Prevention.com
(Photo by: Getty Images)

If you've gradually gone from feeling spunky and energetic to feeling exhausted and struggling to climb the stairs (let alone get in a daily workout), iron deficiency might be to blame. It's the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States and women are at higher risk than men. You can blame Aunt Flo for that.

You're officially anemic when there isn't enough iron in your body to create the necessary amount of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the most important component of red blood cells and acts like a transportation system for oxygen in your body. When your body doesn't have enough iron to create hemoglobin, your red blood cell count will drop and make it more difficult for your tissues to get the oxygen you need, commonly leading to fatigue and shortness of breath. (Do you feel tired all the time? Check out Heal Your Whole Body to start feeling like yourself again.)

While eating more iron-rich foods can help treat anemia, if you're truly anemic, chances are a lack of iron in your diet isn't the problem. Iron deficiency is more commonly caused by an inability to absorb iron, side-effects from medicines or surgery, insufficient red blood cell production, or blood loss.

While some symptoms of iron deficiency are expected, like fatigue and shortness of breath, others seem like they should have no connection whatsoever to your iron levels. Here, 6 to look out for.

1. The desire to eat dirt
(Photo by: Getty Images)
If you ate dirt as a kid, you might have been iron-deficient. For some reason researchers still aren't too sure of, people with severe iron deficiencies often crave non-food items like dirt, clay, corn starch, paint chips, cardboard, and cleaning supplies. The condition is called pica and can be difficult to catch because people are ashamed to admit they have these strange addictions. But for patients who do report non-food cravings, iron supplements often help.

2. Spoon nails
Although they may seem unrelated to the rest of your body, your nails can actually say a lot about your health, including whether or not you're iron deficient. Along with weak and brittle nails, spoon nails, also called Koilonychia, can be indicative of an underlying iron problem. They look just how they sound--the inside of your nail sinks in, leaving you with a fingernail shaped like a spoon. Since spoon nails can also be caused by trauma (aka a jammed finger), exposure to petroleum-based solvents, and other issues, the American Academy of Family Physicians recommends doctors do a blood test for anemia when other causes of spoon nails aren't obvious.

3. Cracked lips
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Thanks to difficult winters, a dry room, or a habit of licking your lips, just about everyone knows the pain of cracked lips. But about a third of people with iron deficiency are privy to a specific type of cracking called angular cheilitis, which affects the corners of your mouth. And those cracked corners can make it difficult to eat, smile, or even shout. In a study of people with angular cheilitis, researchers found 35% of patients had iron deficiency.

In those cases, they said, treating angular cheilitis on its own wouldn't help. You need to treat the underlying iron deficiency to keep the cracking from coming back again and again.

4. A swollen tongue
Another not-so-obvious symptom of iron deficiency is atrophic glossitis, also known as a swollen and tender tongue. Someone with glossitis will have a tongue that swells enough so the usual bumps on the surface disappear and make your tongue appear smooth. The swelling can cause problems with chewing, swallowing, or talking.

5. A constant craving for ice
(Photo by: Getty Images)
Craving ice is a specific form of pica called pagophagia. And ice cravings are one of the most common symptoms of severe iron deficiency. Though reasons for this craving are unclear, some doctors theorize that chewing ice increases alertness in iron-deficient people (who are typically sluggish and tired) or that it soothes their swollen tongues. But if you like to crunch on the ice left in the bottom of your cup every now and then, don't worry. People with pagophagia don't just eat an occasional ice cube; they crave it and go through several cups to several pounds of ice every day.

6. Tingling legs
If you've ever sat in a chair but just couldn't get comfortable, feeling like you should keep moving your legs, you have an idea of what it's like to have restless leg syndrome (RLS). Except people who have RLS feel this way all the time. The feeling has been described as burning, tugging, tingling, or like you have insects crawling around inside your legs. And while doctors still aren't completely sure what causes this condition, some preliminary research suggests iron-deficiency could be an underlying problem.

When to see a doctor
If you've checked off several of the symptoms above, it may be time to see your doctor. But keep in mind, these are just the bizarre ones. If you've noticed you're more tired than usual, are struggling to catch your breath when you walk up stairs or exercise, get dizzy, or often feel weak, those symptoms can also indicate a problem with your iron levels. If you suspect an iron deficiency, make an appointment with your doctor for blood tests to confirm. Self-treating with iron supplements or even an iron-rich diet can be dangerous as too much iron can cause problems like bone loss and liver damage.

By Kasandra Brabaw, Prevention.com

This article '6 Weird Signs You're Not Getting Enough Iron' originally ran on Prevention.com.

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If you've gradually gone from feeling spunky and energetic to feeling exhausted and struggling to climb the stairs (let alone get in a daily workout), iron deficiency might be to blame.

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