Low Iron Levels: What Are the Causes and Symptoms?

Woman getting blood drawn for low iron level testing

Iron loss is a normal part of your body’s everyday symptoms. Sweating, shedding skin cells and gastrointestinal loss contribute to regular iron loss at a rate of approximately 1 mg/day. Menstruating women lose additional iron, equivalent to 0.5 to 1.0 mg/day if you have normal flow. Heavy flow could easily double or triple this iron loss—but does this mean you have low iron levels?

Does that mean you’re losing too much? And how? Let’s talk about the causes and symptoms of low iron levels—and what you can ask your doctor about for treatment.

Gastrointestinal Issues That May Cause Iron Malabsorption

Most of your iron is absorbed in the upper gastrointestinal tract. It comes from iron-rich foods like beef, lamb, shrimp, tuna, spinach, sweet potatoes, broccoli, watermelon, strawberries, raisins, tofu, beans and more. But if you suffer from any type of upper gastrointestinal issues, you may not be absorbing all the iron you need. And that can lead to low iron levels.

A few factors in malabsorption to ask your doctor about:

Sound like you? Book an appointment with one of our doctors now to get support for your low iron levels.

Labs to Assess

There are three labs we use to assess low iron levels: ferritin, iron, and CBC.

Ferritin is storage iron. When your body needs freely floating iron, it will pull from stores to replenish its stash. You’ll see this marker become depleted before your red blood cells change (CBC). We focus a lot of our attention on this marker because we try to prevent iron deficiency.

Iron total. This is total iron you have available to use. It can give us a good idea of where you are on the spectrum that is iron deficiency.

CBC. This measures your red blood cells and their size shale and color. When you become depleted in iron over a long period of time, your blood cells become pale and small. 

When assessing these, it’s more than just the numbers on the page—it’s how you, the human, feel with these numbers. Iron is required for so many different processes that if you’re even trending towards deficiency, it can cause significant symptoms.

Symptoms of Low Iron Levels

If you’re wondering if you might have iron deficiency, consider these symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Hair loss
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dark circles under eyes
  • Cravings for ice or other inedible objects
  • Decreased exercise stamina 

Treatment for Low Iron Levels

There is a time for increasing food-based iron and a time for supplementing with iron. Our advice is always to talk to your doctor about what’s best for you. With a ferritin low enough, our team also may recommend an iron infusion to overcome any malabsorption, or to get iron in you faster than oral supplements. And as always, we recommend treating the root cause and figuring out why your iron is low in the first place! 

Interested in partnering with an MIMC doctor to determine if low iron levels could be part of your health journey? Book an appointment now.