Please, hear me out: Have you ever felt the craving to eat ice? OK now, what about dirt? Or even clay? This phenomenon is called pagophagia and this craving, along with fatigue, rapid heart rate or shortness of breath, may mean you have insufficient levels of iron, a mineral found in the Earth’s crust and in our bodies.
Dr. Travis Nemkov is an assistant research professor in biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. He walks us through what iron is, why it’s important for the body, what a deficiency feels like and which foods contain it.
What is iron?
Nemkov says iron is the most common element on Earth, so it’s not surprising that iron is one of the most abundant elements in our body. When the body is deficient in iron, anemia or low red blood cell count can occur. Nemkov says this is because, “iron is critical for the body to produce hemoglobin, which is the protein in red blood cells that uses iron to transport oxygen throughout the body.”
When low iron results in anemia, it’s a condition called iron deficiency anemia. Nemkov explains that when there are too few red blood cells, there is not enough oxygen getting to the body’s tissues, which can lead to a state referred to as hypoxia.
Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include:
- Pale or yellow skin
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Headache after activity
- Cold hands and feet
- Inflammation or soreness of your tongue
- Brittle nails
- Unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice, dirt or starch
- Poor appetite, especially in infants and children with iron deficiency anemia
Nemkov emphasizes that red blood cells do more than simply transport oxygen, and some of the symptoms associated with anemia may be because of disruptions in other bodily functions like: ion homeostasis, vascular tone, detoxification and immune system modulation.
How much iron can you have per day?
How much iron you need per day depends on several factors. According to the NHS in the UK, “The amount of iron you need is:
- 8.7mg a day for men aged 19 and over
- 14.8mg a day for women aged 19 to 49
- 8.7mg a day for women aged 50 and over.”
What food is highest in iron?
Citing the NIH, Nemkov says, “rich sources of iron include fortified cereals, red meat, poultry, fish, oysters, kidney/red beans and lentils and chickpeas, tomatoes, tofu, spinach, dark leafy greens, potatoes, cashews and, most importantly, dark chocolate (45-69% cacao).”
If you’re mindful about including iron in your diet, you can get there fairly easily – one cup of cornflakes contains anywhere between 8 and 28 mg of iron, and 100 grams of dark chocolate contains around 6 mg of iron. You can check the amount of iron in foods by searching the USDA Food Data Database or by checking nutrition labels.
In some cases, where a doctor has detected a deficiency, iron supplementation either as an oral supplement or IV treatment may be necessary.
What to do about an iron deficiency
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should reach out to your doctor. An iron deficiency can lead to a wide variety of unpleasant symptoms – and can sometimes be a result of another medical condition like blood loss or a problem with the absorption of nutrients.
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