Iron deficiency fatigue: low iron symptoms and causes

October 30, 2020 7 mins read
Iron deficiency fatigue: low iron symptoms and causes

Low iron symptoms like fatigue, weakness, pale skin and cold hands and feet could point to an iron deficiency. Do you have dark circles under your eyes, making you look as tired as you feel? Have you been sleeping more than usual and dragging yourself through your days because you are so tired?

Having low levels of this vital mineral can lead to symptoms beyond just giving you dark circles under your eyes and making you feel fatigued. Take a look.

What is iron deficiency?

Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world. (You can blame our diets rich in processed foods that offer little nutritional value). If you have an iron deficiency, it means your body does not have enough of this mineral to perform its necessary functions.

One of the most important functions of iron in the body is facilitating hemoglobin production. Hemoglobin is vital for making red blood cells that carry oxygen through the body. A lack of iron can result in a lack of oxygen in parts of the body, leading to various adverse symptoms.

What are the 3 stages of iron deficiency?

Did you know that there are three stages of iron deficiency? They are:

  • Pre-latent: The iron that is stored in the muscles and the liver starts to deplete.
  • Latent: Iron stores are fully depleted, but your hemoglobin levels are still in the correct range.
  • Iron deficiency anemia (IDA): Iron levels are no longer high enough to maintain normal levels of hemoglobin.

Low iron symptoms

When there is not enough oxygen reaching all the cells in your body, you can start to experience symptoms of under-oxygenation. These include:


Two of the most common symptoms of low iron are fatigue and sleepiness, caused by a lack of oxygenation due to low levels of hemoglobin. Starved of oxygen, your cells can’t sustain the necessary energy to keep you feeling alert and energized.

You also become more fatigued because your heart has to work harder to get what little oxygen there is to the rest of your body.

If you eat enough calories in a day, follow a healthy diet and get enough sleep, but you still feel fatigued, visit your doctor to have your iron levels tested.

Feeling weak

Your body can start to feel weak and tired if you don’t have enough iron in your system. This can affect your daily tasks, make it hard to exercise and can affect your work.

This is especially true if your job is quite physical (such as in construction, or professional sports), or if you are a surgeon, teacher, or chef who has to be on their feet a lot.

Poor muscle healing

A lack of iron and oxygen-rich blood can impair healing. For wounds to heal properly, they need oxygenation to take place.

If you get an injury or go for an operation and your wound struggles to heal, it can be an indication of low iron. It can also be a symptom of diabetes, so your doctor will need to check both.

Chest pain

You can start to experience chest pain if you have an iron deficiency. This can occur because your heart has to work harder to supply your body with oxygen-rich blood, which can cause chest pain.

Headaches and dizziness

Do you have persistent headaches or dizzy spells? This symptom of low iron is less common than others. But if you’re waking up with a headache, it can be caused because not enough oxygen is reaching the brain, which can cause blood vessels to swell.

Brittle nails

Having brittle nails is one of the first symptoms of vitamin deficiency, including low levels of iron and zinc. Do you want to grow healthy and strong nails, but your nails are brittle? No strengthening nail polish will solve this problem for you. You need to make sure you are giving your body all the iron it needs.

Cold hands and feet

Can you cool down a warm lager just by holding it in your hands? You might not have enough iron in your system. Your hands and feet can become cold because they are not getting enough oxygen-rich blood.

Poor appetite

Iron is important in regulating the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin, which is why a poor appetite is a sign of a possible iron deficiency. A poor appetite due to low iron is more common in children and infants.

Pale skin

Your face, hands or your entire body is paler than usual. This is because red blood cells get their red colour from hemoglobin. If you have low hemoglobin levels, your blood will be less red, and your skin will be paler.

What causes low iron?

There are different causes of iron deficiencies. If you are showing signs of low iron, investigate the following reasons so that you can find the correct treatment.

Lack of iron in your diet

You need to get enough iron in your diet from the foods you eat. Foods that are high in this mineral are red meat, pork, poultry, organ meats, seafood, eggs, dried fruits, dark chocolate and broccoli.

An inability to absorb iron

Your deficiency could be caused by an inability to absorb iron properly. This could be because of something like leaky gut syndrome or irritable bowel syndrome. Nuts and legumes like lentils and beans are sources of this mineral, but they also contain antinutrients known as flavonoids that chelate iron and make it harder to absorb. Phytic acid is another antinutrient (found in beans, other legumes and cereals) that makes it harder to absorb the iron from these foods.

Blood loss

Losing blood due to an incident like a medical procedure or physical trauma can result in an iron deficiency. The severity of your symptoms and the time it will take to recover will depend on the amount of blood you’ve lost. If you get a blood transfusion after losing a lot of blood, your levels will return to normal faster.


Women lose blood and iron during their periods, which can contribute to period fatigue. If you have a heavy flow, you will lose even more iron than someone with a lighter flow. That is why it is important to eat iron-rich foods before, during and after your period.


You need even more iron when you are pregnant to support the growth and red blood cell production of your baby. If you do not get enough of this mineral from your diet, your body will deplete your iron stores to give the needed amounts to your baby.

How to deal with iron deficiency

A deficiency can successfully be treated by changing your diet and including more iron-rich foods, and by using mineral supplements under medical supervision.

It is important to take a holistic approach when it comes to treating symptoms like fatigue caused by low iron levels. Include different treatment strategies, such as:

Eat iron-rich foods

Iron-rich foods are your best option. You have the lowest risk of your levels becoming too high by getting the mineral from whole food sources like:

  • Beef
  • Poultry
  • Pork
  • Egg yolks
  • Liver
  • Shellfish
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Dried fruits
  • Dark chocolate

Boost your iron absorption

You can absorb even more iron from your food if you choose the right food sources of iron and if you pair these foods appropriately.

  • Spinach gets a lot of credit for its iron content, but your body absorbs very little of it. It is best to get this vital mineral from animal foods.
  • Heme iron, which is derived from animal foods is the most absorbable form of iron. Non-heme iron is derived from plant foods. It is not as easily absorbed by the body.
  • If you are a vegan or vegetarian or your diet is just mostly plant-based, you might want to consider a supplement.

Pairing foods that are high in iron with vitamin C can increase the absorption of it. If you’ve ever wondered why many doctors recommend having orange juice containing vitamin C with fortified cereal, this is why.

Iron supplements

Seek medical advice before using an iron supplement. Without your doctor’s advice, you can easily make your iron levels too high (which can be dangerous).

It’s important to know that you get different forms of iron supplements and that your body doesn’t absorb all of them effectively. Supplemental forms that can reduce symptoms of a deficiency and are easily absorbed are ferrous gluconate, ferrous sulfate and ferrous bisglycinate.

Iron levels can take some time to come back to a healthy level once you have changed your diet and possibly started taking supplements. But, once your levels are optimal and your symptoms have improved, you will feel a lot less fatigued and have the energy you need to live your best life.