Symptoms of iron deficiency & how to boost your intake

Anaemia affects roughly a third of the world's population with half the cases due to iron deficiency,1 according to the World Health Organisation.  

In Australia, iron deficiency affects about 10 per cent of young women and a significant proportion of preschool children, according to a study published in Australian Prescriber.2

Why do we need iron?

Iron is a mineral that helps to transport oxygen around the body, making it essential for of health. It is also important for producing energy, optimal immune function, and storing oxygen in our muscles.

A 2015 World Health Organisation reporti said iron deficiency anaemia adversely affects brain and muscle development, causes fatigue and low productivity. In pregnancy, it may be associated with low birth weight and increased risk of maternal and infant mortality.

A person may become iron deficient if they do not get enough iron in their diet, if they’ve lost a lot of iron through excessive bleeding, or if their body isn’t able to properly absorb iron.

Iron deficiency develops gradually and, because of this, its symptoms may not always alert you to an immediate issue.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of iron deficiency or anaemia include:

  • fatigue, feeling tired, listless and weak;
  • decreased exercise capacity;
  • decreased work and school performance;
  • decreased concentration capacity;
  • decreased libido;
  • difficulty maintaining body temperature;
  • reduced immune function.

People at risk include pregnant women, adolescent girls, women of childbearing age, young children and people who are on restricted diets, particularly vegetarians and vegans.

How can I improve my iron intake?

Some foods can help our bodies absorb iron, while others can inhibit it. To ensure your iron is being absorbed we recommend that you:

  • eat foods high in vitamin C at the same time as foods containing iron;
  • cook plant foods to improve the amount of available iron;
  • avoid having tea, coffee or calcium during or directly after having a source of iron;
  • speak to your doctor about any possible dietary interactions with your medications or herbal supplements that could impair iron absorption.

Ensure that you only take iron supplements under the advice of your GP or health practitioner, as too much iron can also be harmful.

Speak to your health professional about the right diet, lifestyle, testing and potential supplements that might be appropriate for you.

References available on request

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