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Digital Subscriptions > Healthy Food Guide > December 2018 > IT COULD BE IRON DEFICIENCY


Low iron is the most common nutritional shortfall in the UK, affecting mainly girls and women. Even before it becomes a full-blown deficiency it can cause a range of symptoms. Jo Waters reveals what to watch out for

Tired, anxious, confused?

THE SYMPTOM most of us associate with iron deficiency anaemia is probably fatigue, but there are other, more surprising, ones. Anxiety and depression, brain fog, restless legs, hair loss, breathlessness and even cravings for ice cubes can all be signs.

Iron helps your body make red blood cells by binding to a protein called haemoglobin, which gives blood its red colour and carries oxygen to every cell in the body. It’s vital for normal cellular function, including converting food into energy.

‘This is why iron deficiency can affect the whole body and have such a devastating effect on energy levels, mood and concentration, says professor Toby Richards, director of surgery at University College Hospital London and director of The Iron Clinic, the first dedicated private iron deficiency clinic in London.


Even having low iron stores (in other words, not quite anaemia but heading that way) can cause debilitating symptoms that are often missed, warns Toby. As well as those already mentioned, symptoms of deficiency and low iron stores can include loss of sex drive, heart palpitations, itchy skin, brittle nails, mouth sores or ulcers, and a greater susceptibility to infections. ‘Sadly, these symptoms are not always recognised as being connected to iron levels, so iron deficiency can get overlooked or even misdiagnosed,’ says Toby.

‘ Low iron stores – in other words, not quite anaemia but heading that way – can cause debilitating symptoms that are often missed ’

In the UK, we know iron intakes are low among girls and women from the ages of 11 to 64. In fact, the National Diet and Nutrition Survey revealed 46% of girls and almost one in four women have low intakes. The highest proportion is among low income groups. The highest prevalence of full-blown iron deficiency is among children aged 18–30 months, girls aged 15–18 and women aged 35–49, plus the over-85s and men living in institutions (such as care homes and prisons) over the age of 65. In low-income groups, the prevalence of iron deficiency anaemia is highest between 19 and 35 years.

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