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Is Too Little Iron Making You Tired?


Have you ever found yourself feeling winded after walking up a flight of stairs, cold when everyone else is comfortable, or exhausted even when you’ve had enough sleep? These are all possible signs of iron deficiency anemia, but even if you’re not deficient, you may benefit from more dietary iron.

A new French study looked at the impact of iron on fatigued, nonanemic women and found a significant result. Scientists randomly assigned nearly 200 women between the ages of 18 and 53 to either an iron supplement or a placebo for 12 weeks. While the blood workups for each of the women fell into the normal ranges, those who received iron had a 47.7 percent reduction in perceived fatigue compared to a 28.8 percent decline in the placebo group. But before you run out and buy an iron supplement, there are a few things you should know:

You can’t diagnose yourself with low iron or anemia, and there may be other causes of chronic fatigue. In addition, it’s possible to consume too much iron in supplement form, and iron overload can have serious side effects, including damage to your heart and liver. For these reasons talk to your doctor first before popping a pill, and focus on getting more iron in your diet.

This key mineral is needed to deliver oxygen to cells, so too little can cause fatigue as well as suppressed immunity, but there are three main causes of low iron:

Blood loss This is the most common cause of low iron in the United States. Your red blood cells contain iron, so when you lose blood, you lose iron along with it. That’s why women with heavy periods often experience a drop in iron levels. But a slow, chronic loss of blood, from things such as an ulcer, tumor, colon polyp, or uterine fibroid can also be a cause because of bleeding triggered by the habitual use of aspirin or other pain killers.

An inability to absorb iron Iron is absorbed into your bloodstream in your small intestine, but a GI disorder can affect your body’s ability to absorb this mineral.

A lack of iron in your diet If you consume too little iron, over time your blood levels can drop.

Here are four simple, healthy and safe ways to boost your intake:

1. Eat vitamin C rich foods with iron rich plant-based foods: this combo boosts the absorption of iron from your digestive system into your blood by about six times.
Great pairs include:
-Red bell peppers with spinach 
-Tomatoes with broccoli
-Citrus with edamame

2. Cook in an iron skillet: Acidic foods that have a high moisture content, such as tomato sauce, absorb the most iron from these pans. One study found that the iron content in three ounces of spaghetti sauce increased nine times after being cooked in a cast iron pot.

3. Incorporate more beans and grains into your diet: Lentils, quinoa, and black beans are all good iron sources and one cup of soybeans provides 50 percent of the daily target. Again, pair them with vitamin C to boost absorption. Other good vitamin C sources include strawberries, papaya, kiwi, and pineapple.

4. Watch your intake of substances that limit iron absorption: Tannins (found in tea and coffee) and calcium both interfere with absorption, so try to drink tea, coffee, and consume calcium supplements at least a few hours before a meal that’s high in iron if you’re trying to build your body’s stores.

For more information on low iron and anemia check out these resources:
Mayo Clinic
National Institutes of Health
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Do you have questions about iron? Have you ever been diagnosed with anemia? Please tweet @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine.

Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.


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