A nutritionist explains how a lack of iron can impact your energy levels.
Medically reviewed by Dr Louise Wiseman MBBS, BSc (Hons), DRCOG, MRCGP and words by Dr Emma Derbyshire
If you feel tired all the time, you are certainly not alone. But what many people don’t realise is that there’s more to energy deficiency than just sleep. If you usually always clock eight hours a night but still feel exhausted the following day, you could be missing out on certain nutrients or there might be something amiss with your health.
Nutritionist Dr Emma Derbyshire explains everything you need to know about iron deficiency and how this essential mineral can dramatically impact your energy levels:
Does iron deficiency make you tired?
Tiredness is now such a common problem, doctors often use the abbreviation TATT — an acronym for Tired All The Time Syndrome. But does iron deficiency make you tired? While there are many possible reasons behind feeling tired all the time, one of the first investigations doctors check is a patient’s iron levels.
In the UK checking for low iron levels is especially worthwhile. Findings from the recent National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) – the largest survey to assess dietary habits in the UK revealed that almost half of girls aged 11 to 18, and more than a quarter of women aged 19 to 64 were not getting the minimum intakes of iron recommended for good health. In fact, a lack of iron is the most common nutritional deficiency after vitamin D.
Further research found that anaemia is also a major concern in the UK. Anaemia and iron deficiency are not the same thing. You can have low iron stores (ferritin on a blood test) and still have normal haemoglobin (not be anaemic). Only when the iron is very low may it actually show as low
Why do we feel tired all the time?
So, why is exhaustion and iron deficiency at such epidemic levels? Well, firstly, the number of women not hitting the minimum recommended intake for iron has jumped by 17 per cent since the previous survey just two years previously.
- Haem iron
Over the same period the consumption of iron-rich red meat has fallen by 13 per cent as vegetarian diets have become more popular. Red meat is an importance source of ‘haem iron’ – the form that is readily absorbed by the human body.
- Non-haem iron
Unfortunately, iron from ‘plant-based’ sources, also known as ‘non-haem’ iron usually doesn’t hit the mark. For example, phytates which are found in beans, grains and nuts have been shown to slow iron absorption by as much as half. And other things we eat and drink – such as tannin in coffee can block absorption of non-haem iron, as do the polyphenols in some herbal teas, wine, chilli, cereals and legumes.
🍊 Vitamin C aids absorption of iron, so sipping orange juice in combination with iron rich foods may help to boost your iron stores.
- Hormones and iron consumption
Secondly, heavy periods and the use of non-hormonal intrauterine devices can also lower iron levels, and pregnancy and childbirth can impact iron absorption.
- Food strike hemolysis
And you might be surprised to know that running, especially on hard surfaces, can cause you to become iron deficient. It can trigger ‘food strike hemolysis’ – a process where red blood cells erupt due to the impact of the foot hitting the ground.
Together, the combination of these factors can mean that we are low in iron but high in exhaustion. Iron and energy are inextricably linked because this essential mineral is vital for transporting oxygen around the body.
How to top up your iron levels
If your diet is causing your iron deficiency, good sources of iron include:
- Dark-green leafy vegetables such as watercress and curly kale
- Iron fortified cereals and bread
- Pulses such as beans, peas and lentils
- Meat -if you are lacking in energy, including red meat within your diet is important. Your body finds it six times easier to use the haem iron in steak compared to the non-haem iron in spinach.
It may also be worth giving supplements a go if you’re feeling tired. It is however important that you chat to your doctor before starting an iron supplement, as excess iron can be dangerous and other health problems also need to be excluded first.
What if iron tablets make you nauseous?
If you have been instructed to take iron tablets by your doctor, bear in mind that not everyone gets on with iron tablets. They’ve been linked to nausea, constipation and stomach pain. It means some people stop taking them if they get side-effects.
Fortunately there is hope as a new form of iron is now available called Active Iron which boost iron levels without troublesome stomach side effects. So if you don’t want to include more red meat in your diet and you’re having difficulty with traditional iron capsules, that could be worth a try.