OPINION

Signs of low iron: Feeling extra tired, weak, cold or skin is paler

Why our iron levels need to be just right

Iron Man has long been my favourite Avenger.

I think we have a lot in common. We're both scientists, we both enjoy solving problems and helping people, and of course we're both ridiculously good looking.

Unlike Iron Man though, I've been running a bit low on iron lately.

It turns out iron is actually really important for our health, and not having enough of it causes a few issues.

One of the best known roles of iron is in oxygen transport and storage. Our red blood cells contain an iron-rich protein called haemoglobin, which is essential for capturing and transporting oxygen from our lungs to the rest of our bodies.

In our muscles a similar protein called myoglobin stores oxygen, ready for our cells to use in energy production.

Not enough iron means not enough haemoglobin or myoglobin, leading to reduced oxygen transport.

This can leave you feeling pretty tired, and sometimes a bit short of breath.

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You might have a more rapid heartbeat as your heart works harder to try and get enough oxygen to all your organs.

It can also give you cold hands and feet, as less oxygen is being carried to your extremities.

Haemoglobin is also what makes our blood red, so when there is less of it our cells actually appear less red - a condition called hypochromia.

It can also affect the size of red blood cells, making them smaller, which is known as microcytosis.

Smaller, paler blood cells can leave your skin looking a bit washed out, which is another sign of an iron deficiency.

Ideally we're able to keep our iron levels up through our diet. Most people know that red meat is iron rich, but so are leafy vegetables like spinach, as well as lentils, beans and tofu.

When iron levels drop too low it can be treated with iron supplements or an iron infusion to help get back on track.

It's important that these are only used when really needed though, as having too much iron also causes issues.

When it comes to iron levels, think like Goldilocks - you don't want to much, or too little - the levels need to be just right.

Hopefully my recent infusion will soon have me feeling like Iron Woman again.

But if you're feeling extra tired, weak, cold or notice your skin is paler than usual, it might be worth a quick trip to your GP to get it checked out.

  • Dr Mary McMillan is a lecturer at the School of Science and Technology, University of New England.
This story Why our iron levels need to be just right first appeared on The Canberra Times.