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Iron deficiency: The ‘strange’ signs in your food habits indicating an iron deficiency

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The organisation says your body regularly gets iron from the foods you eat. If you consume too little iron, over time your body can become iron deficient. The body needs iron to make haemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen from your lungs to the organs and tissues throughout the body. Without adequate levels of iron, the red blood cells can’t effectively carry oxygen to the body’s tissues.

The NHS says some of the main symptoms can include:

  • Tiredness and lack of energy
  • Shortness of breath
  • Noticeable heartbeats (heart palpitations)
  • Pale skin

It says there are also less common symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia which can include food tasting strange and wanting to eat non-food items, such as paper or ice.

The Mayo Clinic says: “Doctors use the term “pica” to describe craving and chewing substances that have no nutritional value — such as ice, clay, soil or paper.

“Craving and chewing ice (pagophagia) is often associated with iron deficiency, with or without anaemia, although the reason is unclear.”

It says at least one study indicates that ice chewing might increase alertness in people with iron deficiency anaemia.

The organisation says a thorough medical evaluation can help determine if pica is due to an underlying medical condition.

The NHS says other less common signs include:

  • Headaches
  • Hearing ringing, buzzing or hissing noises inside your head (tinnitus)
  • Feeling itchy
  • A sore tongue
  • Hair loss – you notice more hair coming out when brushing or washing it
  • Finding it hard to swallow (dysphagia)
  • Painful open sores (ulcers) in the corners of your mouth
  • Spoon-shaped nails
  • Restless legs syndrome

Though most people can get all the iron they need through their diets, women who lose a lot of blood during their monthly period are at higher risk of iron deficiency anaemia and may need to take iron supplements.

If iron deficiency anaemia is left untreated, you may be more susceptible to illness and infection, as a lack of iron affects the body’s immune system.

The NHS warns: “If you take iron supplements, do not take too much as this could be harmful.”

Nonetheless, taking 17mg or less a day of iron supplements “is unlikely to cause any harm” and you should continue taking a higher dose if advised to by a GP.

As a general guide, the NHS says the amount of iron you need is 8.7mg a day for men over 18, and 14.8mg a day for women aged 19 to 50, and 8.7mg a day for women over 50.

Absorption of iron into the gut is reduced by drinking tea and milk, according to the NHS. Nonetheless, if you drink orange juice beforehand, this can be beneficial.

The NHS states: “Vitamin C (sometimes called ascorbic acid) may help the body to absorb iron, so to get the most from the food you eat, have Vitamin C rich foods with meals; for example, fresh vegetables or fruit, or drinks such as fresh orange juice.”

But it notes “tea may reduce the absorption of iron from foods” so you should avoid drinking tea directly before, after or with meals and only drink tea in between meals”.

Non-prescribed food supplements are available over-the-counter and can be taken if an adequate iron intake is not being achieved.

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