Why am I so tired? What is iron deficiency anaemia?

Why am I so tired? What is iron deficiency anaemia?

According to a recent YouGov poll, a quarter of Brits feel tired most of the time, 13% exist in a constant state of exhaustion, and a further third feel tired about half the time.

All of that collective tiredness has an effect on how effective people can be at work and at home in their personal and family lives.

Tiredness has become such a feature of modern life that we’ve come to accept it as ‘normal’ and even compete over it with spouses and peers and social-media tales of stress and woe. But we shouldn’t necessarily accept it or dismiss it so readily - especially if it’s having a big impact on our lives.

Ongoing fatigue can have serious consequences – and could have a medical explanation. If you are what the NHS terms TATT – Tired All The Time – it’s well worth getting yourself checked out.

One reasonably common culprit is iron deficiency anaemia. Here’s what you need to know about it.

What is iron deficiency anaemia?

Iron deficiency anaemia is caused by a lack of the mineral iron, which your body needs to produce haemoglobin – the stuff that helps your blood cells carry oxygen around your body.

Not enough of it means your body isn’t going to get enough oxygen to work as it should – and that leads to iron deficiency anaemia.

How common is iron deficiency anaemia?

There’s actually different kinds on anaemia – including B12 deficiency anaemia – but iron deficiency is the most common. The World Health Organisation recognise it as the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, affecting 30% of the world’s population.

What causes iron deficiency anaemia?

It’s usually to do with a lack of iron in someone’s diet, but is common in pregnancy and in those who suffer heavy periods. It can also be caused by bleeding in the stomach or intestines, for instance because of stomach ulcers or taking certain medicines.

What are the symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia?

Common symptoms include:

  • Tiredness
  • Lack of energy
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Pale skin
  • Headaches

Other symptoms include:

  • Tinnitus – ringing in the ears
  • Dry skin and itchiness
  • Sore tongue and a strange taste in your mouth
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Restless legs – especially at night
  • Brittle/concave nails
  • Depression
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Picking up more viruses/infections
  • Loss of appetite
  • Wanting to eat odd or non-food items – like ice, paper, or soil. 

How is iron deficiency anaemia diagnosed?

Iron deficiency is diagnosed through a simple blood test to look at your red blood cell count.

How do you get iron into your body?

You can get more iron into your body by eating more iron-rich foods like watercress, kale and other dark-green leafy vegetables, meat, direct fruit, meat, beans, lentils and peas. There’s also things like iron fortified cereals to try.

You should also avoid food that makes it harder for your body to absorb the iron you’re actually eating – things like milk and dairy products, tea and coffee.

If you can’t get enough iron through your diet, iron tablets may be recommended.

How is iron deficiency anaemia treated?

If your blood test shows you need to be treated, you’ll likely be prescribed iron tablets. These are usually taken for around 6 months, and it’s often suggested that drinking orange juice after you’ve swallowed one may help your body absorb the iron better.

Iron tablets can have side effects – which include bowel problems like constipation or diarrhoea, nausea, heartburn – and black poo! So don’t be surprised if it takes a bit of time to get used to them – and what turns up in your toilet…

You’ll get blood tests repeated to make sure your iron levels are returning to normal.

Is iron deficiency dangerous?

Living with the symptoms of iron deficiency isn’t nice, but if things are left untreated it could have an impact on your immune system longer term, put pregnancies at higher risk of complications, and even put your heart and lungs under pressure that could lead to tachycardia (irregular or fast heartbeat) or heart failure.

How can I find out more about iron deficiency anaemia?

There’s lots of information online, including from the NHS, from healthline, and from the World Health Organisation.

How can I get myself checked out?

If you’re feeling unwell - even if you’ve got wide ranging and rather vague symptoms - you should always talk to your GP. It can be tough to put all the symptoms together, so if you feel you need more time with someone or a second opinion, don’t forget you can also make an appointment with an Equipsme GP 24/7.

You can also take things into your own hands and order your own blood test through our partners Thriva. You’ve got a £10 voucher towards a test of your choice (you’ll find the discount code on the welcome email from Thriva after you join or renew with Equipsme) - and they’ll send you a test pack out in the post. You do your own finger-prick blood sample from the comfort of your own home, and pop it back in the post to get to Thriva’s lab.

How Equipsme plans work:
Find out more about Thriva home health-checks
Find out more about our GP service