Iron is crucial for everyone’s health, especially for women. When you’re running low, it can mimic other common problems, leaving you exhausted and confused while trying your best to juggle work, family, and your personal life.

Iron is super important because our bodies use it to make red blood cells. These cells help carry oxygen around our body, keeping us healthy and energized. And if your levels get severely low, you could develop iron deficiency anemia, but being low on iron doesn’t automatically put you in the anemic category. 

Heavy periods are to blame for the disproportionate number of women struggling with low iron. “Approximately 35% of all women of reproductive age in the US have iron deficiency anemia,” says Board Certified OB/GYN Dr. Christy Evans, M.D. of Almond ObGyn. And this number is substantially higher in developing countries, adds Evans.

woman with headache

Our bodies drop hints when we’re running low on iron, but spotting the signs can be tricky sometimes. Here are fifteen sneaky symptoms that signal your body needs more iron. Now might be a good time to chat with your doctor if you notice these.

15 signs of iron deficiency

You have little or no energy

It’s common for women with low iron to experience persistent fatigue or tiredness that just doesn’t seem to go away. Lower iron levels reduce the amount of oxygen reaching our red blood cells, which are necessary to transport oxygen to other parts of our body.

"Iron deficiency can negatively impact women by reducing their exercise capacity and negatively impacting their quality of life,” says Preventive Cardiology Dietitian Michelle Routhenstein, MS, RD, CDE, CDN.

Your skin is pale

Less oxygen in your body can also cause your skin to become pale. If you’ve noticed a change in your skin tone that even makeup can't help, it might be due to low iron. 

You’ve been losing hair

Are you finding lots of hair everywhere? Many women notice more hair loss in the shower or brushing, which could be linked to their low iron levels.

Your nails break easily

No one likes to break a nail, but are yours giving you more trouble than usual? Brittle fingernails that break at the slightest touch can often indicate low iron.

You can't catch your breath

If you’re not into regular exercise, this symptom could be confusing. According to the Mayo Clinic, low iron levels mean your body can't make enough hemoglobin in your red blood cells.

Hemoglobin's job is to carry oxygen all over your body. And less oxygen makes otherwise easy daily tasks, like walking up the stairs, feel much harder.

woman looking at her hair loss in her brush

Your legs won't stop moving

Are you dealing with restless legs? Your low iron levels could be the reason. People tend to realize it’s an issue as they try to settle down. 

Routhenstein points out that a decline in dopamine levels due to low iron is the culprit. However, she adds that providers may not see iron deficiency as a cause of restless leg syndrome in many cases.

You get sick a lot

Checking your iron levels might be a good idea if you're prone to illness. Getting sick more often than usual can be a real pain. 

"Iron is necessary for immune cells to fight infection," says Routhenstein. “When iron levels are low, it negatively impacts the immune response, leading to more frequent infections."

You are always cold

There’s a link between your iron levels and your body’s ability to regulate temperature. You could have an iron deficiency if you always feel chilly, even in the warmest places.

You have unexplained headaches

Persistent headaches can signal low iron levels in the body, too. And that’s not all, research indicates that a more severe deficiency is linked to increased severity of chronic daily headaches.

You’re so dizzy

Unexpected moments of lightheadedness can catch anyone off guard. But if you feel faint more often or are nauseous or unsteady, you may have low iron levels.

You have heart issues

When your iron levels are lower than they should be, your heart has to work harder to pump blood to make up for the lack of oxygen we talked about earlier. 

This symptom isn’t one to take lightly and can lead to more severe heart problems down the line. "Iron deficiency is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and irregular heartbeat due to low iron levels decreasing oxygen delivery to your body,” says Routhenstein.

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Strange cravings 

This one can be confusing and slightly embarrassing. “One of the more unusual symptoms of iron deficiency is pica, which is unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice, dirt, or starch,” says Evans.

Your brain is foggy

Moderate to severe anemia can cause difficulty concentrating, says Evans. Less oxygen going to your brain impacts your cognitive functioning, causing you to struggle with memory and mental clarity. 

Your tongue looks weird

Anemia Tongue, or glossitis, is the inflammation of your tongue caused by low iron. Colgate says to look for signs like a swollen tongue, color or texture changes, pain or tenderness, and difficulty chewing, swallowing, or speaking.

Your body takes a long time to heal

Iron plays a role in how your body heals, too. Women with low iron levels may find that their injuries or cuts take longer to resolve.

woman at the gym rubbing a sore arm muscle

Iron deficiency: When to see a doctor

It’s a good idea to consult your healthcare provider if you’re worried about your iron levels. They’ll check your levels with a few simple tests and suggest treatment options so you can start feeling better.

If your iron levels are relatively low, taking an oral supplement or eating iron-boosting foods is helpful. Medication can also be a highly effective treatment for iron deficiency. ACCRUFeR, a twice-daily prescription that treats low iron stores in the body, has been found to restore hemoglobin stores to normal levels within 12 weeks of treatment for the majority of patients, with one-third seeing results in just four weeks! 

Remember, you’re the expert on your body. Pay attention to its signals, and don’t hesitate to seek help if you notice any signs that concern you.

Blair Sharp is a freelance writer who lives in Minnesota with her husband and son. Her words have been published in various publications, including Parents, SheKnows, The Bump, and Insider. Find her writing daily on LinkedIn and check out her weekly newsletter, The Relatable Creator, for motivation to show up and stand out online. Head to her website for more.