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How do I know I have iron deficiency anemia?

Symptoms of iron deficiency are fatigue, shortness of breath, feeling cold, paleness, racing or pounding heartbeat, difficulty concentrating, irritability, confusion, fainting, weakness and headaches.   

What causes iron deficiency anemia?

This type of anemia is broad and can be caused by many different conditions. There may be blood loss from heavy menstrual periods, stomach ulcers or hemorrhoids. You may not be absorbing iron from your diet very well or there may not be enough iron the diet. Depending on where you are in life, you may need more iron such as during times of growth, pregnancy or breastfeeding. Without adequate iron red blood cells become small and aren’t able to carry enough oxygen or there are too few of them in the bloodstream.

What do my blood tests mean?

There are a few tests that your doctor will order to confirm that iron deficiency is causing the anemia. A complete blood count or CBC provides information about the red blood cell size, color and amount of hemoglobin inside the cells. Hemoglobin is found inside red blood cells and contains iron as part of its structure in order to carry oxygen. In iron deficiency, the red blood cells become small and pale because there is less hemoglobin concentrated within the cells. Ferritin provides information about how much iron is stored in the body. It will be low in iron deficiency because the body is using it up to make hemoglobin. An iron study looks at the amount of iron in the blood and how “full” certain cells are that carry iron around. The less iron in the body, the less “full” these transporter cells will be.

What can I do about iron deficiency?

It’s important to work with your doctor to find out the reason for the iron deficiency so it can be corrected. If your doctor has determined that you are iron deficient, there are things you can do to replenish iron in your body.



It’s important to eat iron rich foods in your diet. The most bioavailable sources of iron are animal products like beef, chicken, sardines, shrimp, clams, and turkey. Other fantastic sources of iron include beans, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, oats, amaranth, spelt, squash, brussels sprouts, bok choy, kale, beets, dried fruits such as apricots, prunes and raisins, blackstrap molasses and dark chocolate.  

Another nutrient that is important to get in your diet along with iron is vitamin C because vitamin C improves iron absorption. Foods that are high in vitamin C are citrus fruits, bell peppers, broccoli, cantaloupe, pineapples, brussels sprouts, kale and tomatoes.

Along with increasing iron-rich foods, you’ll want to limit foods that contain oxalates, phytates and tannins because they can block iron absorption. Oxalate containing foods include spinach, rhubarb, buckwheat, and Swiss chard. Beverages like black tea, coffee and red wine contain tannins, which will bind to iron and limit absorption. Phytates are found in grains and legumes but their effects on iron can be minimized if they are soaked for 1 hour before cooking.


Botanical Medicine

Herbs can be an excellent part of the plan to increase iron in your diet. One herb that you probably already have is parsley. Make it into parsley pesto, sprinkle it into sauces, soups, and on top of salads. Nettle is a plant that grows wild in the Northwest and is very nutrient dense. It can be made into a tea, pesto or sauteed and eaten like greens. Other herbs that contain iron or improve its absorption are red raspberry leaf, dandelion root, fennel, turmeric, and catnip. These herbs can be made into teas, taken as bitters before a meal or used in cooking.

Iron supplements

Iron supplements can be found over-the-counter in many stores and pharmacies. Three common forms are ferrous fumarate, ferrous gluconate and ferrous sulfate and they each contain a different amount of iron labeled as “elemental iron.” Look for ones that also contain vitamin C. Natural product companies may also include vitamin C and herbs listed above to aid in iron absorption. Side effects of iron supplementation are nausea, stomach discomfort and constipation.

It’s important to follow up with your doctor to make sure your iron deficiency is improving because it may take some time to resolve.

I hope this article helped you to understand what you can do about iron deficiency. Please comment below or email me if you have any questions!


In health,

Dr. Jamie Sculley

Jamie Sculley_07w

Dr. Sculley is an associate physician at Wellspring Family Medicine, a primary care family practice, in her hometown of Port Angeles, WA. She provides care for the whole family and is currently accepting new patients. She graduated from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA.



Bove, M. (2016). Botanical medicines for blood building and iron deficiency anemia. https://www.botanical-medicine.org/Botanical-Medicine-Speakers/Bove-Mary

Dynamed. Updated 2016. Iron deficiency anemia in adults. http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.heal-wa.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=dnh&AN=115986&site=dynamed-live&scope=site. Registration and login required.

Short, M. W., Domagalski, J.E. (2013). Iron deficiency anemia: Evaluation and management. American Family Physician, 87(2), 98-104.  


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