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Iron deficiency: everything about the causes, symptoms and how you can supplement a deficiency

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The iron in our blood is essential for life. It is worrying, then, that according to recent research from Radboud University, as many as 1.2 billion people worldwide suffer from an iron deficiency in their bodies. What are the symptoms of a low iron level? What causes iron deficiency? And how can you solve a low iron saturation? Easly tells you everything about the world of iron.

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What does iron do in your blood?

Iron is an element that we all know. The physical world is full of it. However, iron also has an important function in your body. Iron is needed to produce sufficient hemoglobin (Hb) in the blood. And hemoglobin binds oxygen and thus facilitates the transport of oxygen and its absorption into the cells in your body. Without iron, your cells lack their fuel. So iron is essential for our existence.

What healthy iron values are, differs for men and women. In men, an iron value between 14 and 35 micromoles per liter of blood is considered normal. The normal values for women are slightly lower: between 10 and 25 micromoles of iron per liter of blood.

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(Chronic) iron deficiency

The iron content in the blood is indirectly determined by measuring the amount of ferritin – a protein that stores iron in the body. If there is too little ferritin, there is not enough iron in your blood. You then score lower than the previously mentioned normal values. In that case, we speak of an iron deficiency. An occasional deficiency does not necessarily cause complaints. That is different when the iron deficiency causes anemia. This can cause quite a bit of discomfort. For some people, iron deficiency is chronic. There is then structurally too little iron in the blood. In consultation with a doctor, something must of course be done about this.


Incidentally, an excess of ferritin – an accumulation of ferritin in the blood – is not healthy either. A too high ferritin does not necessarily mean that you also have too much iron. An excess of ferritin can be caused by various reasons. For example, there may be a temporary excess of ferritin during an inflammation. But also liver diseases, autoimmune diseases and being overweight can increase ferritin levels. In cases of hereditary hemochromatosis (also called hereditary iron overload disease), the body does absorb too much iron. This can sometimes lead to complaints.

Iron deficiency symptoms

Iron deficiency alone usually does not cause complaints. Only when an iron deficiency leads to anemia can you experience complaints. What are the symptoms of anemia? The most common symptom is fatigue, for which no normal explanation can be found in daily life. Since fatigue can have various causes, it is of course not possible to diagnose an iron deficiency based on this symptom alone. A striking symptom of anemia is also that your skin can be paler than normal. This is because there is less hemoglobin in your blood, and this protein is responsible for the red color of your blood. The pallor is most pronounced on your skin, gums, and the inside of your eyelids.

Shortness of breath, headache, dizziness, and, in severe cases, anemia due to iron deficiency, palpitations, can also occur. In addition, sometimes symptoms such as restless legs, dry and damaged hair, and you are more susceptible to infections, because iron is a necessary component for the proper functioning of your immune system.

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Of course, based on symptoms alone, you cannot determine whether you have an iron deficiency in your blood. You can take an iron deficiency test or consult a doctor, who can then decide whether further blood tests are needed. Ultimately, a low iron saturation can only be determined with a blood test. If you are not sure of your symptoms, you can investigate your blood values with a broader, generic test, such as the Essential 7 test, without a referral from a GP. The test does not replace the advice of a doctor.

Related tests

The causes of iron deficiency

Iron deficiency can have various causes. Eating too little iron-rich food can, for example, cause a deficiency. There are also differences between men and women. In women, iron deficiency can be the result of excessive blood loss during menstruation. In men, and in women who no longer menstruate, iron deficiency can be caused by chronic blood loss in the gastrointestinal tract.

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How do you get rid of an iron deficiency?

The consequences of iron deficiency can be potentially significant, depending on how large the deficiency is and how long it lasts. But it is also possible that no complaints occur. As mentioned, iron deficiency can cause anemia. Anemia is a shortage of hemoglobin (Hb) – the protein in red blood cells that binds oxygen and is responsible for the oxygen transport in your blood. Anemia and iron deficiency are therefore not the same. For example, it is possible that you have too little iron in your blood, but that the Hb value is normal.

Incidentally, not all forms of anemia are caused by an iron deficiency. A lack of folic acid or vitamin B12 can also cause anemia. In addition, there are hereditary or chronic diseases that can cause anemia. Think, for example, of thalassemia, cancer, kidney diseases, and rheumatism. Want to know more about a hemoglobin deficiency? Read our blog about hemoglobin!


Supplementing iron deficiencies

Have you, for example through a self-test, determined that there is not enough iron in your blood? In that case, it is advisable to supplement the iron deficiency. This can be done in various ways. For example, you can change your diet and eat more iron-rich foods. Foods that contain a lot of iron are: whole grain gingerbread, whole grain spaghetti, rye bread, meat and whole grain crackers. The Voedingscentrum site can tell you more about this. In addition, it is possible to artificially supplement the iron content in your blood with iron supplements.

Note: for serious (very clear) symptoms and complaints, it remains important to first talk to your GP.


Finally, an iron deficiency is common. The consequences do not always have to be serious, but in some cases, they can be, for example when the iron deficiency disrupts the production of hemoglobin and this leads to anemia. So keep an eye on the iron content in your blood. Nowadays, this can be done with a simple iron deficiency self-test, which you can do at home without involving your GP. With early preventive testing, you can prevent many medical problems. Because the cliche is still true: measuring is knowing.

Dr. Renée Schootbrugge-Timmerman, MSc

Approved by a doctor

Dr. Renée Schootbrugge-Timmerman, MSc


At Easly, Dr. Renée Schootbrugge-Timmerman collaborates closely with her medical colleagues to deliver a broad spectrum of care, encompassing preventive measures and STD treatments. Her expertise also extends to offering medical insights for various pioneering projects.

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