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Iron deficiency

What is it? What are the symptoms? What are the treatments?

What is iron deficiency?

Iron deficiency develops gradually if dietary iron intake does not meet the body’s daily requirement for iron. Iron is an essential mineral for the human body and is needed for a number of highly complex processes that continuously take place on a molecular level and that are indispensable to human life, such as the transport of oxygen around the body.

Iron is required for the production of red blood cells, being part of haemoglobin (that is the pigment of the red blood cells). Haemoglobin transports oxygen from the lungs via the arteries to all cells throughout the body and picks up carbon dioxide via the veins on its way back. Iron is also involved in the conversion of blood sugar to energy and the production of enzymes which play a vital role when it comes to the production of new cells, amino acids, hormones and neurotransmitters. The immune system is dependent on iron for efficient functioning and physical and mental growth requires sufficient iron levels, particularly important in childhood and pregnancy.

Iron is lost by the body through a variety of ways including urination, defecation and sweating. Bleeding contributes to further loss of iron which is why menstruating women have a higher demand for iron than men. Iron is a vital mineral during pregnancy with the developing baby solely depending on its mother for iron supplies. Mums-to-be often become iron deficient – usually in the last trimester of pregnancy – because of the increased demand on their bodies from their growing babies for iron and other vitamins. You're more susceptible to iron deficiency if you've had several pregnancies close together, if you suffered with heavy periods before becoming pregnant if you are vegetarian or if carrying twins.

What are the symptoms of Iron deficiency?

Initial symptoms of iron deficiency can include:

  • fatigue and general lack of energy
  • decreased ability to concentrate
  • decreased endurance during exercise

If iron intake is not addressed more serious iron depletion can occur which can lead to iron deficiency anemia. The following symptoms may develop:

  • pale skin
  • dry, brittle nails and hair
  • headaches
  • breathlessness
  • dizziness
  • dim vision
  • heart palpitations

You should contact your midwife, obstetrician or GP if you have any of the above symptoms.

What are the treatments and remedies of Iron deficiency?

The simplest way of increasing iron is to include more in the diet. Foods that are rich in iron include red meat (but avoid liver because this contains high levels of retinol, the animal form of vitamin A, which can harm the developing baby); leafy greens, whole meal breads, fortified cereals, leafy green veg and dried fruit. Note: many foods and drinks can inhibit the absorption of iron and should hence be avoided when eating iron rich foods, examples are:

  • tea and coffee (contain caffeine)
  • red wine and grape juice (contains tannins)
  • dairy products (contains calcium)
  • wheat, oats or cereal (contains bran)

Eating more iron-rich foods might not be enough to bring iron levels up sufficiently, though, and some expectant mums can be prescribed iron tablets. An unfortunate side-effect of taking iron tablets can be constipation and stomach upsets, so fluids should be increased, as well as taking a bit more exercising and eating more fibre. Alternatively liquid iron supplements may be tolerated more easily and are generally thought of as being gentler on the stomach. If iron supplements have been recommended during pregnancy, regular blood tests will normally be done to ensure that iron levels are coming up adequately.

This guide 

The information in this Bounty A-Z of Family Health is not a substitute for an examination, diagnosis or treatment by a doctor, midwife, health visitor or any other qualified health professional. If in doubt, always speak to a doctor.

Bounty will not be held responsible or liable for any injury, loss, damage, or illness, however this occurs or appears, after using the information given on this website and in particular the A-Z of Family Health.

Further help

For health advice and information 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the NHS offers call and web services. You can also visit NHS websites for services, health information and health news at nhs.uk 

  • England – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs.uk 
  • Scotland – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs24.com 
  • Wales – call 0845 4647 , or visit nhsdirect.wales.nhs.uk 
  • Northern Ireland – visit hscni.net


Iron deficiency