Noticing extra hair in the drain or on your pillow when you wake up in the morning can be unsettling enough, but when you add a swollen tongue and fatigue, concern kicks in. While these certainly can be symptoms of something serious, most often, the likely root cause is a condition that’s easy to manage: iron deficiency, also referred to as anemia.
A Common Problem
When I say that iron deficiency is a common issue, I mean it is overwhelmingly common. A study by the World Health Organization found that iron deficiency is the top nutritional disorder in the world and estimates that as many as 80 percent of the population doesn’t have enough iron in their bodies. That’s a staggering number. There are many reasons why people have iron deficiency: not eating iron-rich foods, inability to absorb iron efficiently, pregnancy, heavy periods, and other conditions that can cause blood loss such as peptic ulcers, hiatal hernias, colorectal cancer, or polyps. All of these can cause a deficiency severe enough to cause noticeable symptoms.
Other Symptoms to Know
To understand why a lack of iron causes specific symptoms, it’s important to know what purpose iron serves in the body. Iron is primarily responsible for producing hemoglobin, which enables your red blood cells to carry oxygen to the rest of your body. When your body isn’t getting enough oxygen, many systems suffer. For example, you’ll likely feel tired or weak. Your tongue might be swollen, pale, and sore because of the low levels of hemoglobin and myoglobin. Because of lack of oxygen, you might notice shortness of breath or even heart palpitations in severe cases. Hair loss, including easily damaged hair or an unusually high instance of hair breakage, might also be indicative of an iron deficiency. Nails that are spoon shaped or seem to chip and crack easily is a rarer symptom, but still one to look out for. You might also notice unusual cravings for food – or even non-food items. Ice, dirt, chalk, paper, and clay are all substances that people with serious iron deficiency have reported craving.
What to Do About it
If you think you might have an iron deficiency, see a doctor. It’s important not to self-diagnose and begin taking over-the-counter iron supplements. First, too much iron in your body can be bad as well, but second, there might be an underlying issue that needs to be treated – such as an ulcer or colorectal cancer – which is causing the iron deficiency. People at a higher risk need to be on the lookout for symptoms. Those who are high risk include women, infants, and children – especially kids born prematurely or at a low birth weight – vegetarians, women who tend to have heavy periods, and anyone who frequently donates blood.
Your doctor will likely have your blood drawn and tested to check your iron levels. If it’s determined you’re iron deficient, a treatment plan will be recommended based on the cause of deficiency.
You can reduce your risk of iron deficiency with diet. Eat iron-rich foods such as red meat (in moderation) and poultry, seafood, beans, dark leafy vegetables, and peas. Boost your body’s ability to absorb iron by choosing foods high in vitamin C such as grapefruit, broccoli, strawberries, peppers, oranges, kiwi, leafy greens, tomatoes, and melons.