What Depletes Iron in the Body?

Eating plenty of iron-rich foods — like oysters — can help you deal with low iron levels.
Image Credit: JuliaMikhaylova/iStock/GettyImages

Iron is a mineral that makes up your red blood cells and delivers oxygen to your body — in other words, it's a key part of optimal cell and tissue function. But it's possible to develop a deficiency of the nutrient, so knowing what depletes iron can help you avoid potential health problems.

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According to the National Institutes of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), symptoms of an iron deficiency include:

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  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating and thinking clearly
  • Impaired immune function
  • Difficulty regulating body temperature

Over time, iron deficiency can lead to a condition called anemia, where you lack enough healthy red blood cells to nourish your tissues, per the Mayo Clinic.

Preventing low iron levels is key to avoiding a deficiency or anemia. To help, here's what depletes iron and how to deal with these common causes.

1. You Don't Eat Enough Iron

Not eating enough iron in your diet can deplete your stores of the nutrient.

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The fix? Get plenty of the mineral, which, according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, means eating the following amounts per day for adults:

  • People assigned female at birth (AFAB):​ 8 to 18 mg
  • People assigned male at birth (AMAB):​ 8 mg

Good sources of iron include:

  • Meats like beef, chicken liver and duck
  • Seafood like oysters, mussels and cuttlefish
  • Beans like kidney and soybeans
  • Morel mushrooms
  • Lentils
  • Spinach
  • Dried fruit like apricots and prunes

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Tip

You can also take an iron supplement to up your intake of the mineral. But remember — the FDA doesn't require supplements to be proven safe or effective before they're sold, so there’s no guarantee that any supplement you take is safe, contains the ingredients it says it does or produces the effects it claims.

2. You're Not Able to Absorb Iron Well

Certain foods can lead to an inability to absorb enough iron, per the ODS. So if you're low on the mineral, it may be best to limit these foods until you're back in balance:

  • Non-iron-fortified cereals
  • Calcium-rich foods like milk and cheese
  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Cocoa

Calcium supplements like antacids may also impede your ability to absorb iron, per the ODS, so cut back on supplements or eat them separately from iron-rich foods.

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Digestive illness may also be to blame for poor iron absorption, according to the ODS. Conditions like Crohn's disease, celiac disease, ulcerative colitis or recent gastrointestinal surgery may result in malabsorption or intestinal blood loss, both of which can lead to low iron levels.

If this is the case for you, talk to your doctor about how to address the root condition and get your iron balance back in check.

3. You've Lost Blood

Blood loss is another common cause of depleted iron. Typically, this is blood lost from menstruation, according to the ODS.

But other things can lead to excess blood loss — and the resulting low iron levels — including:

  • Gastrointestinal conditions like Crohn's disease, celiac disease and ulcerative colitis
  • Colon cancer
  • Intestinal parasites
  • Frequently giving blood

If you're experiencing low iron levels as the result of any of these conditions, talk to your doctor about how to treat it.

Tip

Taking a daily iron supplement after you donate blood may help you recover lost iron about twice as quickly, according to February 2015 research in JAMA.

4. Your Age

Your age can also put you at greater risk for a deficiency. For example, infants, young children and teenage people AFAB are more likely to have insufficient iron than other people, according to the ODS.

Accordingly, make sure you're eating enough of the mineral. Per the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, here's how much iron these groups should aim to get every day:

  • Infants ages 6 to 11 months:​ 11 mg
  • People ages 1 to 3 years:​ 7 mg
  • People ages 4 to 8 years:​ 10 mg
  • People ages 9 to 13 years:​ 8 mg
  • People AFAB ages 14 to 18 years:​ 15 mg

5. You're Pregnant

Pregnancy can also deplete your iron stores because developing fetuses require lots of the mineral to build and maintain blood supply, according to the ODS.

That's why you should up your iron intake to 27 milligrams per day while you're pregnant, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Besides potentially contributing to anemia, not getting enough iron while you're pregnant can increase your risk for preterm birth and a low birthweight for your baby, per the ODS.

6. You're Taking Certain Medications

Some medicines can affect your ability to absorb enough iron. According to the Linus Pauling Institute, here's a list of what medications can cause iron deficiency:

  • Proton-pump inhibitors like lansoprazole and omeprazole
  • Antacids
  • Ulcer medications like cimetidine and ranitidine (also known as Zantac)

Talk with your doctor about the medications you're taking and their side effects to avoid potential iron absorption issues.

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At the same time, iron can interact with certain medications — like antibiotics and osteoporosis, hypothyroidism and Parkinson’s disease drugs — to decrease their effectiveness or cause side effects, per the Linus Pauling Institute. If you're taking these medicines, ask your doctor about if or when you should take iron supplements to avoid any issues.

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