When it comes to nutrition, we tend to obsess over macros and let the micros take care of themselves. And why wouldn’t we? It’s impossible to know whether you’re getting enough of every key vitamin and mineral, attempting to track your intake would be painstaking. Unfortunately, the only time we tend to clock that we’re low on a particular element is when we get sick.
Iron deficiency can be particularly insidious, and not only because it can chip away at your gym power. The main symptoms – tiredness, lack of energy, shortness of breath – are applicable to such a multitude of illnesses that the only way to diagnose the condition is via a blood test at your doctor’s surgery. Since this demands a fair bit of life admin, sufferers tend to fly under the radar for a while.
So, why is iron deficiency a problem? You probably know by now that iron is important for your blood, but the mineral has a few other crucial functions too. “Iron has several roles in the body, including supporting normal cognitive function, boosting immune function, and helping to create red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body,” explains dietician Dr Carrie Ruxton from the Health and Food Supplements Information Service. It’s also involved in metabolic functions like energy production. About 70 per cent of the body’s iron is found in red blood cells – or haemoglobin – and muscle cells, or myoglobin.
Iron Deficiency Causes
Iron deficiency in men is rare, and tends to affect boys under five or men older than 65 – only around 15 per cent of men don’t meet the daily requirement for iron from their diets according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, compared to a whopping 90 per cent of women. This is mostly because men need far less iron – around 8.7mg per day as opposed to 14.8mg – since they don’t menstruate. The main causes of iron deficiency in men, Dr Ruxton explains, are increased requirements, whether down to physical growth, muscle building or increased blood volume, limited intake, or illness.
“Iron deficiency in men can be a sign of bleeding in the stomach or intestines, which could be due to frequent use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen or aspirin, stomach ulcers, swelling and inflammation in the intestines, haemorrhoids or piles, or – less commonly – cancer of the bowel or stomach,” adds Mike Gibbs, founder of NHS-backed health app OurPath. Going veggie or vegan without reading up on nutrition can be another factor. “Another major cause of iron deficiency in men is inadequate intake of foods high in iron. The body absorbs two to three times more iron from animal food sources compared to plant foods.”
The iron you get through your diet is either in the form of ‘haem iron’, which is mainly derived from meat, poultry, and fish, or ‘non-haem iron’, which comes from cereals, pulses, legumes, fruit and vegetables, explains Orli Rhodes, senior dietitian at King Edward VII’s Hospital in London. “The bioavailability of iron from food varies significantly, and will also be determined by the type of diet we have,” she adds. Vitamin C will help increase the absorption of iron, while physic acid – a component in many vegetables but primarily whole grains, beans, and nuts – may reduce the absorption.
© Shana Novak – Getty Images Iron Deficiency in Men
Symptoms of Iron Deficiency
Iron deficiency anaemia occurs when you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry enough oxygen to the body’s tissues, explains Gibbs, leaving you tired, lethargic, and short of breath. When your body is exhausted, your risk of infections and illness skyrockets, so if you can’t seem to shake the office cold no matter what the pharmacist throws at you, it could be a signal of iron deficiency.
Pale skin and heart palpitations can also be experienced by those with an iron deficiency, adds Dr Diana Gall from confidential online doctor service Doctor-4-U. Less commonly, you may experience a headache when suffering iron deficiency and food might taste unusual. “Men may also experience difficulty swallowing, tinnitus, a sore tongue, mouth ulcers and hair loss,” she continues. “Constant tiredness and lacking energy, one of the most common symptoms, can have a real impact on your mental health and mood as well.”
Colleagues commenting that you look a little under the weather lately? A pale pallor and lightening of the gums and inner eyelids may also indicate that iron levels are below optimum levels, says Keri Filtness, lead nutritionist for Nature’s Best. Symptoms can also include reduced brain function and performance. “There are some indications that low iron may also be linked to a condition known as restless leg syndrome and also to cognitive and behavioural issues such as ADHD,” she adds.
Dangers of Iron Deficiency
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the longer you’re deficient for, the graver the consequences. Left untreated the symptoms of iron deficiency can become very serious, particularly extreme fatigue and shortness of breath, warns Dr Gall. “Extreme cases of severe low iron can also lead to heart problems such as a rapid or irregular heartbeat,” she says. “This is brought about by the heart working harder to compensate for the lack of oxygen being carried in the blood.” Not exactly ideal.
Long term, untreated iron deficiency anaemia can lead to a decrease in physical and mental performance, adds Filtness. An ineffective immune system will increase your risk of both minor and more major infections. Serious consequences include damage to organs due to a poor supply of oxygen. In essence, you could end up really unwell.
Your body can’t produce its own iron, so you need to look elsewhere. Start with a good diet, then add supplements as necessary, advises Dr Ruxton. Iron-rich foods include red meat, offal and oysters, with chicken, turkey, pork, fish and eggs also relatively high in the mineral. For veggies or vegans, fill up on nuts, seeds, lentils, beans and other legumes, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, amaranth grain, and green, leafy vegetables – but remember the variety of iron in plants is absorbed at a far lower rate than animal sources.
To boost non-haem absorption, eat foods high in vitamin C such as citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, and leafy greens with your iron-rich foods, Gibbs suggests. “Avoid drinking tea and coffee at the same time as iron-rich foods,” he adds. “The tannins in these can prevent iron absorption. And avoid foods fortified with calcium or calcium supplements with meals, as calcium also prevents iron absorption.”
When to See a Doctor
If you’re suffering symptoms of iron deficiency, don’t attempt to self diagnose, as tempting as it might be. Go to your doctor who can do a blood test and confirm the diagnosis, recommends Dr Gall. “It’s important to identify whether or not there may be an underlying cause of iron deficiency, so a proper diagnosis and examination is essential,” she explains.
Be mindful that too much iron can also be harmful to your body, Gibbs adds, so avoid supplements unless recommended by your doctor. Rectal bleeding or blood in the faeces should be reported as soon as possible, warns Dr Ruxton, as it could be a sign of polpys or bowel cancer – especially in older men.