Are you oftentimes so tired that you feel as if you've been hit by a ton of bricks? While it's normal to feel overtired now and then, a constant state of fatigue could signal an underlying medical problem. In fact, you could be suffering from lack of iron, the #1 nutritional deficiency in the world.
Iron is an essential nutrient, critical for producing hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that transports oxygen all over the body. If you don¹t have enough iron, your body has to work a whole lot harder to get the energy it needs, which can leave you feeling tired, weak, irritable and unable to focus.
Many equate iron deficiency with anemia, the condition in which your body has a lower than normal number of red blood cells. But research shows that there's a whole other category of iron deficiency that precedes anemia. To diagnose it, a blood test must measure ferritin levels, the iron stores in your blood.
Many people go through their annual medical exam assuming that their physician is checking for low iron, but this is not the case. The typical blood work carried out includes cholesterol and blood pressure numbers, for instance, but not iron, unless you describe a specific symptom that warrants it. What's more, even if you are checked for anemia, you're not given a ferritin blood test that could show low iron levels indicating a mild to moderate deficiency.
Menstruating women with heavy periods are most at risk for low iron. To check yourself, take the "tampon test." If you need to change your tampon after less than 2 hour, it's a sign of a heavy period and could mean you are losing too much iron.
To determine if your fatigue is caused by an iron deficiency, check yourself for these other five major warning signs:
- You feel fatigued for over a month.
- You always feel cold.
- Your skin looks paler than usual.
- You just can't focus.
- You have substantial hair loss and brittle nails.
If you have one or more of the symptoms listed above, your fatigue may be due to low iron levels. See your doctor and ask for a ferritin-level test.
Iron-Rich Foods to Fight Fatigue
To fight fatigue that's caused by an iron deficiency, turn to iron-rich foods. By changing your diet, you could see significant changes in your energy level within as little as one week.
There are 2 types of dietary iron:
- Heme iron derived from hemoglobin is found in meat-based protein and absorbs 2-3 times faster than non-heme iron. Lean ground beef, chicken livers, oysters and clams are potent sources of iron in this category.
- Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods. Beans, spinach, broccoli, dried fruits, such as apricots, and fortified cereals are among the best sources.
To boost your iron intake each day:
1. Eat Vitamin C-Rich Foods With Iron-Rich Veggies
Vitamin C helps speed the absorption of iron traveling from your digestive system into your bloodstream up to 5 times faster for a major energy boost. Great pairs of vitamin C and iron-containing food include:
- Red bell peppers with spinach
- Tomatoes with broccoli
- Citrus fruits with edamame
2. Cook Your Pasta Sauce in an Iron Skillet
Acidic foods with high moisture content, such as tomato sauce, will absorb the most iron from these cooking pans. In one study, the iron content in spaghetti sauce tripled after it had been simmered in a cast iron pot. Sauté vegetables and other foods this way as often as you can to rev up iron intake.
3. Choose Clams When You Can
Clams provide tons of iron and are also a top source of potassium and vitamin B12. Eat clams once a week as an alternative to another protein. Choose fresh or canned since they both contain the same amount of iron. A 3-ounce serving size (about 10 small clams) provides up to 24mg of iron and contains only 126 calories.
4. Limit Coffee and Tea 3 Hours Prior to an Iron-Rich Meal
The tannins found in tea and coffee interfere with iron absorption, so try to avoid drinking these beverages for a few hours before a meal that's high in iron, especially when you're trying to build up your body's stores.