Am I Tired or Iron Deficient? How to Tell the Difference, According to a GP

Tired is a term that many of us throw around on a daily basis to describe how we're feeling, whether it's from a lack of sleep, a stressful situation at work or a general state of mind. When we're feeling less than optimal, our iron levels are often put under scrutiny as a way to explain what's happening with our bodies. It turns out, after speaking with Dr Michelle Woolhouse, General Practitioner, Medical Director & Founder of Whole Medicine, that feeling tired doesn't necessarily correlate to your iron levels, and shouldn't be your first assumption. 

To begin with, why is iron important? Dr Woolhouse explains that sufficient iron levels are vital for energy, immunity, and surprisingly, sleep. In fact, iron is involved in the conversion of serotonin to melatonin (the sleep hormone). As well as that, iron helps carry oxygen to cells and tissues in the body when combined with a protein called haemoglobin in the red blood cells.

When it comes to iron deficiency, around one in nine women are operating with suboptimal levels of iron. To find out whether your tiredness is a result of low levels of iron, Dr Woolhouse suggests consulting your GP as the first port of call. They'll be able to examine you and determine whether your iron storage levels are too low and if you need to take any action. If your fatigue is accompanied by blood loss elsewhere in the body, particularly from your gastrointestinal system or menstrual bleeding, you should make an appointment with a healthcare professional as a matter of priority.

Besides fatigue—something Dr Woolhouse says you shouldn't be feeling every day—symptoms including shortness of breath, dizziness, and heart palpitations are considered possible signs of incomplete iron levels. You may also find that it's harder to get to and stay asleep because of restless leg syndrome and low melatonin levels. If your body's storage of iron gets so low that it cannot make adequate amounts of haemoglobin, you are considered to be anaemic. Dr Woolhouse points out that anaemia can make you more susceptible to (and make it harder to recover from) illness and can lead to other health conditions if not treated. Signs to look out for are small cuts on the sides of your lips and pale skin, particularly in the creases of your hands.

Dr Woolhouse advises against self-diagnosing and warns that over-the-counter supplements are usually not helpful to treat the symptoms associated with iron deficiency. Not only do they put you at risk of increasing your iron levels too much (yes, you can have too much iron), these types of supplements have been known to cause side effects such as constipation and nausea. The most effective way to maintain healthy levels of iron within your body is to incorporate foods that are rich in this crucial mineral. Red meats like kangaroo, beef and lamb are all good sources of iron and are even more effective when accompanied by a source of vitamin C such as broccoli or kale. For vegetarians and vegans, sources of iron can be found in lentils, vegetables such as spinach and fruits like apricots. Dr Woolhouse provides a little known tip: avoid drinking red wine with dinner if you're trying to boost your iron levels as the tannins can inhibit your body's ability to absorb the mineral.

If you were answering "yes!" to the above symptoms list, it might be time to take a closer look at what's happening in your body. Only your trusted GP can determine whether or not you're iron deficient, because as we know, our bodies are extremely complicated and we all experience illness in different ways.

Want to know what happens to your body when you don't get enough sleep?

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