Heavy legs, dizzy, tired, headache: iron deficiency

Do you suffer from heavy legs, dizziness, fatigue and headaches? There may be an iron deficiency. Other complaints you may have include: pale skin, cold arms and legs, spots in front of the eyes, brittle nails, cracks in the corners of the mouth, palpitations, irritability, loss of appetite, hair loss and a sore tongue. Due to certain circumstances you may not get enough iron through food. It may also be that your body does not absorb enough iron. The body then uses the iron stores in the liver and spleen. An iron deficiency occurs when that supply runs out. Blood loss is the most common cause of iron deficiency in healthy people. Blood loss can occur due to an operation, an accident, childbirth, pregnancy or heavy menstruation.

  • What is the function of iron?
  • Iron in food
  • Types of iron
  • Absorption of iron from food
  • Top 10 Iron Rich Foods
  • Symptoms of iron deficiency
  • Risk groups for iron deficiency
  • Causes of iron deficiency
  • Insufficient dietary iron intake
  • Blood loss
  • Increased need for iron
  • Intensive exercise
  • Inability to absorb iron
  • A gradual decrease in iron
  • Treatment of iron deficiency

What is the function of iron?

Iron plays an important role in the transport of oxygen in the blood through the formation of the protein hemoglobin (Hb), an iron-containing protein in red blood cells and part of the red blood cell (erythrocyte). Hemoglobin is also necessary for metabolism. The normal values for Hb that are used in the Netherlands are different for men and women:

  • for men this is between 8.5 and 11.0 mmol/L;
  • for women this is between 7.5 and 10.0 mmol/L; and
  • For pregnant women, the normal value is somewhere between 6.8 and 8.7 mmol/L.

Anemia is called anemia when the blood contains too few red blood cells or too little hemoglobin (HB). Anemia is diagnosed in approximately eight women and one to two men per 1,000 patients per year. Roughly 90% of cases of anemia in general practice involve iron deficiency anemia. Other causes include:

  • a deficiency of vitamin B12 (especially seen in the elderly);
  • a deficiency of folic acid; or
  • a chronic illness.

Bread / Source: Istock.com/Lyashik

Iron in food

Types of iron

Iron is a mineral, a substance that, like vitamins, occurs in small amounts in food and drinks and is essential for good health and normal growth and development of the body. Iron occurs in food in two forms:

  • as heme iron, which is only present in animal products such as meat, fish and poultry; and
  • as non-heme iron, which is mainly present in plant foods, such as vegetables and bread.

Iron is mainly found in:

  • beef and lamb;
  • various whole grain products; and
  • green leafy vegetable.

Absorption of iron from food

Only 10% of the iron in our diet is absorbed. The absorption depends on a number of factors. Firstly, the form in which the iron occurs in the food as well as the presence of other substances in your diet. For example, vegetable iron is generally less well absorbed than animal iron. Furthermore, it is known that some substances promote the absorption of iron. An example of this is vitamin C.

Top 10 Iron Rich Foods

Top 10 iron-rich foods and their recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of iron for adult men and women:

  1. Beef liver: 100g contains 6.5 mg iron (RDA = 36% for women and 81% for men)
  2. Oysters: 100g contains 5.7 mg iron (RDA = 32% for women and 71% for men)
  3. Spinach: 100g contains 3.6 mg iron (RDI = 20% for women and 45% for men)
  4. Lentils: 100g contains 3.3 mg iron (RDI = 18% for women and 41% for men)
  5. Dark chocolate: 100g contains 3.3 mg iron (RDI = 18% for women and 41% for men)
  6. Quinoa: 100g contains 2.8 mg iron (RDI = 15% for women and 32% for men)
  7. Pumpkin seeds: 100g contains 11.2 mg iron (RDI = 62% for women and 140% for men)
  8. Chickpeas: 100g contains 2.9 mg iron (RDI = 16% for women and 36% for men)
  9. Dried apricots: 100g contains 2.7 mg iron (RDA = 15% for women and 34% for men)
  10. Tofu: 100g contains 2.4 mg iron (RDI = 13% for women and 29% for men)

Symptoms of iron deficiency

Iron is important for the formation of hemoglobin. This iron-containing protein is necessary for oxygen transport in the blood and metabolism. You can recognize an iron deficiency by the following symptoms in particular:

  • easily tired, feeling of weakness, lethargy and general general malaise;
  • reduced exercise capacity;
  • pale skin;

Fatigue due to iron deficiency / Source: Istock.com/BartekSzewczyk

  • cold extremities;
  • quickly out of breath / shortness of breath;
  • suffer from heavy legs or restless legs, which manifests itself in an urge to move them;
  • tinnitus;
  • spots before the eyes;
  • dizziness and tendency to faint;
  • cracks in the corners of the mouth and brittle, broken nails;
  • decreased appetite (especially in children);
  • palpitations;
  • headache;
  • irritability/agitation;
  • loss of appetite;
  • sore tongue or sore tongue;
  • increased hair loss.

Risk groups for iron deficiency

Iron deficiency is a common health problem. People who are more likely to develop an iron deficiency are:

  • women in menstruation period;
  • pregnant or breastfeeding women;
  • young people under the age of 22;
  • vegetarians and vegans.

Causes of iron deficiency

Some of the most common causes of iron deficiency in adults include:

Insufficient dietary iron intake

There are two types of iron, as described above: heme iron and non-heme iron. The body absorbs heme iron from meat much better than non-heme iron from vegetable products, estimated at 25% and 1-10% respectively. There are many reasons why iron intake could be insufficient, such as a poorly balanced vegetarian or vegan diet, chronic dieting or a very one-sided diet. The latter is mainly seen in developing countries where the diet consists largely of corn and wheat flour; grains do not naturally contain iron.

Blood loss

Iron deficiency easily occurs in situations of chronic blood loss. Common causes include prolonged or heavy periods, regular nosebleeds, chronic conditions associated with blood loss (such as stomach ulcers, polyps or colon cancer). Anti-inflammatory medications, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, can increase iron loss through intestinal bleeding.

Increased need for iron

The growth spurt during puberty, pregnancy and breastfeeding are situations when the body needs more iron. If this increased need is not met, a deficiency can occur.

Intensive exercise

Athletes are susceptible to iron deficiency because regular exercise increases iron needs in a number of ways. For example, intense training promotes the production of red blood cells, while iron is lost through sweating. Athletes who sweat easily should especially keep a close eye on their needs for magnesium, zinc and iron.

Inability to absorb iron

There may be an inability of the body to absorb iron from food.

A gradual decrease in iron

A total of approximately four grams of iron are present in the human body. Most of this iron supply is needed for the hemoglobin in the red blood cells that transports oxygen. Extra iron is stored in the liver and spleen and is used during times when food intake is inadequate. A small amount of iron (somewhere between 0.51 mg) leaves the body per day. If your iron needs from food are not met, your iron stores will slowly decrease. It often takes several months before the body’s iron stores are depleted. Effects of this include:

  • Iron depletion . The hemoglobin level is normal, but the body has only a small amount of stored iron, which will soon be depleted. This stage usually has no obvious symptoms.
  • Iron deficiency . The body’s iron stores become depleted and the hemoglobin level in the blood drops. In that case, you may suffer from symptoms as described above.
  • Iron deficiency anemia . The hemoglobin level is so low that the blood is unable to supply enough oxygen to the cells in the body. The symptoms depend greatly on your age, the severity of the anemia and the speed at which the anemia developed. Iron deficiency anemia often causes general complaints, such as fatigue and pale skin (and mucous membranes). In young children, growth retardation can even occur. Furthermore, there are indications that iron deficiency in children can lead to delayed mental development.

Blood collection / Source: Istock.com/anna1311

Treatment of iron deficiency

Your iron status can be measured through a blood test. The treatment of iron deficiency depends on your iron status and whether there is any underlying condition. If there is an underlying medical problem that is the cause of the iron deficiency, it will need to be treated adequately. You can receive nutritional advice if you have an iron deficiency. Sometimes it is wise to consult a dietician. Blood tests can be repeated at a later time for monitoring. In addition to adjusting your diet, you may need extra iron in the form of iron pills or iron preparations. This is at the discretion of the doctor.

read more

  • Iron deficiency: symptoms, cause, consequences and iron supplementation
  • Anemia: dizziness headache fatigue shortness of breath
  • Supplementing iron deficiency, iron in food: table & quantity
  • Headache, nauseous, dizzy, tired and palpitations
  • Fatigue complaints: being tired, 10 causes and tips