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  • Writer's pictureJessica Poynter

"Unveiling the Subtle Symptoms of Iron Deficiency Anemia in Women and How It Could Be Related to Hair Loss and Thinning"


Middle-aged woman experiencing migraine or headache
Migraines are only one of the many signs of a possible iron deficiency

Have you been slowly losing hair and you have no idea why? Did you give birth 3 years ago and your hair still hasn't recovered? Are you noticing hair loss and thinning all over and not just off the part?

You could be anemic or iron deficient.


Iron deficiency anemia, a condition that affects many women, can be a silent threat. It occurs when the body lacks sufficient iron to produce hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body. While fatigue and pale skin are well-known symptoms, there are several lesser-known but common indicators that should not be ignored. This article aims to empower you with knowledge, providing a comprehensive guide to understanding, identifying, and addressing iron deficiency anemia in women at its early stages, when it's most manageable.


Understanding Iron Deficiency Anemia

What is iron deficiency anemia?

Iron is essential for producing red blood cells, which house hemoglobin, crucial for transporting oxygen in the blood. Without adequate iron, the body can't make enough healthy red blood cells, leading to various symptoms and health issues. 

You might be thinking, I just went to my doctor and had a full workup, and she said my iron levels were acceptable. But what does that really mean? The tests your doctor uses to check your iron levels can be complex, but let's break them down into more relatable terms:

Typically, when pinpointing iron deficiency anemia, your doctor will order a CBC (complete blood count) to determine your iron levels. A CBC tests your hemoglobin and hematocrit levels.


The what now?

Allow me to explain.


Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to all body parts. Think of it like a bus for oxygen in your body: It picks up oxygen when you breathe in and drops it off where it's needed, helping keep your body working. Then, after delivering the oxygen, it picks up carbon dioxide, a waste gas from your body, and brings it back to your lungs to be breathed out.


Now, hematocrit tells us how much of your blood is made up of red blood cells (versus plasma). Think of your blood as a fruit smoothie in a glass. If we were to measure how much of that smoothie is fruit and how much is juice, hematocrit measures how much fruit (red blood cells) there is compared to the juice (plasma, the liquid part of your blood).

If you have a high hematocrit, it means your blood has a lot of red blood cells.


To determine anemia, a physician might also order a Reticulocyte (retic) count, which measures the 'immature' iron supply in the bone marrow rather than the blood, in conjunction with a CBC.


However, a CBC and a retic count are NOT the only necessary tests.


These four tests address how the body systems work with the iron supply to paint a more detailed picture of the whole iron supply in the body, especially as it relates to hair growth.

  1. Serum iron level - detects the amount of iron actively working in the bloodstream

  2. Total iron binding capacity - measures liver-created protein transferrin to see how well  iron  moves in the body

  3. Serum ferritin - detects ferritin (an iron-binding protein), which uses the liver, spleen, and immune system to store iron for future use

  4. Bone marrow biopsy - determines if the body is producing blood cells (typically only done when other tests don't yield apparent results)


Just like there are many components to accurately determining whether or not someone has iron deficiency anemia, many factors contribute to creating what the body views as a deficiency.


There is quite an array of factors that can contribute to iron deficiency anemia. Here are just a few of the causes of iron deficiency anemia:

  1. Poor DietLacking iron-rich foods, whether by way of convenience food or strict diets like veganism and not supplementing

  2. MenstruationHeavy menstrual bleeding is a common cause of iron loss in women

  3. PregnancyA woman's blood volume increases anywhere from 30 to 50% by the end of pregnancy. Since the body has been used to those increased iron demands during pregnancy, when the amount decreases (birth), it can lead to the body thinking it has a deficiency. This increased heart rate (workload) can also account for the fatigue, dizziness, nausea, and headaches often experienced in the first trimester. 

  4. Chronic ConditionsCeliac disease, Chron's, or other inflammatory bowel diseases


Now that we know what can cause iron deficiency anemia and how medical professionals look for it let's review how those of us who don't have a medical degree can spot the signs ourselves.


Fatigue and Weakness

The body lacks the necessary oxygen to produce energy. Going back to the metaphors from earlier, the bus broke down and can't deliver oxygen to keep the body systems functioning properly. This also means the carbon dioxide isn't getting out of the body as it should for optimal corporeal performance.


Pale Skin

When someone has iron deficiency anemia, their skin may appear pale or sallow due to decreased red blood cells. This can cause the skin to lose its healthy, rosy color.


Brittle Nails

Brittle or spoon-shaped nails, clinically referred to as koilonychia, can serve as subtle yet significant indicators of iron deficiency anemia. This condition occurs due to insufficient iron levels, which impact the structural integrity and resilience of the nails, rendering them more susceptible to fracturing and splintering.


Shortness of Breath

If you have difficulty catching your breath during a workout, you might be low on iron. Basically, there's not enough hemoglobin to carry oxygen properly in your body, so you're struggling to get enough oxygen and feeling out of breath.


Restless Legs Syndrome

Iron deficiency has been scientifically linked to Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS), a condition characterized by an uncontrollable urge to move the legs, usually due to an uncomfortable sensation. Research suggests that addressing this deficiency through dietary changes or iron supplementation may alleviate RLS symptoms, providing individuals with improved quality of life.


Hair Loss

Iron, a crucial mineral, plays a vital role in our hair. Its deficiency can disrupt the normal growth cycle of hair, leading to a condition known as telogen effluvium, which prematurely forces more hair than usual to enter the resting phase (telogen) and subsequently fall out. As a result, individuals may experience increased hair shedding, thinning, and even hair loss. Furthermore, the diminished red blood cell count because of an iron deficiency prevents oxygen and nutrients from feeding and growing the hair follicles. Without an adequate supply of oxygen and nutrients, the 'tree branch' (hair strand) cannot grow to its fullest potential and may become weak and brittle, making the hair more prone to breakage and damage. These consequences of iron deficiency on hair health are not to be taken lightly, and it's crucial to address this issue promptly.


Headaches and Dizziness

Reduced oxygen supply to the brain can cause headaches and dizziness, affecting overall cognitive function.


Last, let's go over some iron-rich foods that might help increase your levels:

Red MeatBeef, lamb, and pork

PoultryChicken and turkey

FishSalmon, tuna, and mackerel

Leafy Greens: Spinach, kale, and Swiss chard

LegumesLentils, chickpeas, and beans

Nuts and SeedsPumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and cashews

Iron Supplementsin some cases, dietary changes alone may not be sufficient. Iron supplements, available in various forms such as tablets, capsules, and liquid, can help replenish iron levels. Following the dosage a healthcare provider recommends is essential to avoid potential side effects.

References:

Blood information in children

Iron Shortage Warning Signals (UK)



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