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Understanding Iron-Deficiency Anemia and How It Can Affect Your Life

By: Amanda Lucky

Have you noticed a difference in your energy levels recently? Are you feeling more tired than usual? Many factors could be causing these symptoms however there is one element that could very well be the culprit: iron.

Iron is essential in our bodies for many different reasons. One of the main reasons is its requirement in the production hemoglobin, a protein that together with iron form our red blood cells1. About 70% of our body’s iron is found in these red blood cells2. Hemoglobin, in addition to iron, allows our red blood cells to carry oxygen from our lungs to the rest of our bodies. That being said, iron also aids in our muscles’ storage and usage of oxygen. Furthermore, iron is amongst many enzymes that help our bodies digest foods.

When a person is termed “iron deficient”, this signifies that their bodies either possess too low levels of iron or they may have a decreased iron intake or absorption. Contrarily, some individuals may require even more iron than the average. Who may these individuals be? Pregnant women demand higher iron intake as well as growing children3. Also, a decrease of iron is secondary to blood loss which can occur during heavy menstrual periods, frequent blood donations, and with some stomach and intestinal disorders such as food sensitivities3.

Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency and the leading cause of anemia in the United States4. It affects many cellular processes, which include immune functions, neurotransmitter metabolism, electron transport, storage, myelination, and most importantly, oxygen transport5,6. Iron deficiency can cause adults to feel fatigue, which can impair their ability to do physical work7. Other signs and symptoms may include difficulty maintaining one’s body temperature, weakness, decreased work and school performance, and an increased susceptibility to infection8.

It is important to understand however that iron deficiency first presents itself as asymptomatic in many individuals. Eventually, when untreated, a person’s iron levels become sufficiently depleted and anemia occurs, which is a deficiency of red blood cells. If you are noticing any of the previously mentioned symptoms, please contact a healthcare provider.

An interesting study conducted by Pamuk et al. investigated the occurrence of migraine headaches in iron-deficiency anemia (IDA) patients and whether it was related to anxiety, depression and somatization, which is the production of recurrent medical symptoms9. IDA is most prevalent in adult-age women therefore only female subjects were assessed for this study. 79.5% of IDA patients reported having defined headaches at any time of their lives. The most common age group suffering from headaches were ages 30 years and younger and 50 years and older9. In 87% of patients headaches became worse with movement and the factors contributing to migraine attacks were emotional stress (44.4%), sleep disorders (31.1%) and the menstrual cycle (8.9%). In addition, IDA patients with migraine and headache symptoms had a significantly higher quality of life disturbance, particularly due to increased anxiety and depression. Researchers stated that nonspecific complaints from IDA patients might not be directly related to the presence of anemia, but other cofactors such as depression and anxiety9.

Thus far, some research has been conducted supporting the evidence that iron deficiency affects neural functioning however further research is much needed. As previously mentioned, contact a healthcare provider if you believe you are at risk for iron-deficiency anemia. IDA is a serious and severe nutritional deficiency but if treated and managed properly, you don’t need to let it consume your life.


  1. McDonagh et al. Screening and Routine Supplementation for Iron Deficiency Anemia: A systematic Review. Pediatrics. 2015;135:723-733
  2. Hemoglobin and Functions of Iron. UCSF Medical Center. 2015:
  3. Iron and Iron Deficiency. 2011. Adapted from: Recommendations to Prevent and Control Iron Deficiency in the United States. MMWR. 1998;47 (No. RR-3) p.5:
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Iron deficiency – United States, 1999–2000. MMWR 2002;51:897–899
  5. Connor JR, Menzies SL. Relationship of iron to oligoden- drocytes and myelination. Glia. 1996;17:83–93
  6. Takeda A. Significance of transferrin in iron delivery to the brain. J Health Sci. 2001;47:520–4.
  7. Haas JD, Brownlie T 4th. Iron deficiency and reduced work capacity: a critical review of the research to determine a causal relationship. J Nutr. 2001 Feb;131(2S–2):676S–688S; discussion 688S–690S.)
  8. Office of Dietary Supplements, NIH. Dietary supplement fact sheet. Available online:
  9. Pamuk et al. Is iron-deficiency anemia associated with migraine? Is there a role for anxiety and depression? The Central European Journal of Medicine. 2015. DOI 10.1007/s00508-015-0740-8