Iron deficiency, also known as iron deficiency anemia, is a common condition that occurs when the body doesn’t have enough of the mineral iron. Iron is an essential nutrient that has many important functions, including keeping the body warm. So can low iron levels actually make you feel colder than usual? Let’s explore the link between iron and body temperature.
What causes low iron?
The main cause of low iron is not getting enough iron from your diet. The recommended daily intake of iron is different for men and women:
- Men aged 19-50 years: 8 mg/day
- Women aged 19-50 years: 18 mg/day
Certain groups have increased iron needs, including pregnant women, babies, and toddlers. Iron is found in meat, seafood, beans, dark green leafy vegetables, iron-fortified cereals, and more. If you don’t consume enough iron-rich foods, you may become deficient.
Other potential causes of low iron include:
- Blood loss – Heavy menstrual periods, ulcers, hemorrhoids, donating blood
- Malabsorption – Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, gastric bypass surgery
- Pregnancy – Increased iron needs
- Rapid growth – Infants, adolescents, endurance athletes
Iron deficiency develops in stages of severity. At first, the body’s stores of iron become depleted. This is followed by low iron transport and low iron in tissues. The final stage is iron deficiency anemia when hemoglobin levels fall.
Symptoms of iron deficiency
Many people have no symptoms in the early stages of low iron levels. As the deficiency worsens, signs and symptoms may include:
- Fatigue, weakness
- Pale skin
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Strange cravings to eat non-food items like dirt, chalk, or ice (pica)
- Brittle nails
- Swollen tongue
- Cracks at the corners of the mouth
- Restless legs syndrome
- Poor appetite
- Difficulty maintaining body temperature
Iron and body temperature
One of the symptoms of iron deficiency anemia is poor temperature regulation and feeling cold. There are a few reasons why low iron levels can influence body temperature:
1. Oxygen transport
Iron is needed to make hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen. When iron is low, fewer red blood cells can be made and tissues receive less oxygen. Since body heat is produced when oxygen combines with nutrients, decreased oxygen transport leads to reduced heat generation.
2. Thyroid function
The thyroid gland controls metabolism and the production of hormones that regulate body temperature. Iron deficiency seems to alter thyroid metabolism in a way that decreases resting energy expenditure. Basically, thyroid function slows down which can make people feel cold.
Good circulation helps distribute heat around the body. Some theories suggest iron deficiency reduces blood flow to the hands and feet, making them feel cold. However, the exact mechanisms are still being studied.
4. Mitochondrial function
Mitochondria are energy factories within cells that generate heat as a byproduct. Some research indicates that iron deficiency impairs the function of mitochondria. With less mitochondrial activity, the body produces less heat.
Who is most affected?
Those most likely to experience feeling cold from an iron deficiency include:
- Infants and toddlers – Rapid growth increases iron needs
- Teenage girls – Starting menstruation raises iron requirements
- Pregnant women – Iron supports fetal development
- Female athletes – At risk for “athletic anemia”
- Vegans and vegetarians – May not get enough dietary iron
- Those with celiac or inflammatory bowel disease – Impairs nutrient absorption
However, even men and postmenopausal women can feel sensitivity to the cold with iron deficiency.
Correcting low iron levels
If you have symptoms like unusual coldness along with extreme fatigue, it’s a good idea to see your doctor. A blood test can determine if you have low iron stores or iron deficiency anemia.
Treating underlying causes of iron loss, like heavy menstruation or donating blood, can help normalize iron levels. Eating more iron-rich foods or taking an iron supplement may also be recommended.
Most people start feeling less cold within weeks after beginning iron therapy as their hemoglobin and iron stores improve.
Tips for keeping warm
Here are some tips to help you stay warm while correcting an iron deficiency:
- Dress in layers and wear warm socks
- Use extra blankets while sleeping
- Wear a hat and gloves outdoors
- Stay active – Exercise helps circulate blood
- Drink warm liquids like tea, broth, or cocoa
- Take warm baths or use a heating pad
- Keep your home warmer than usual
- Have your thyroid checked if temperature issues persist
Foods that help increase iron
Including more iron-rich foods in your diet can help restore normal iron levels. Good dietary sources of iron include:
|1 cup cooked
|1 cup cooked
For best absorption, pair iron-rich foods with vitamin C sources like oranges, peppers, strawberries, or tomatoes. Avoid drinking coffee or tea with meals as the tannins can hinder iron absorption.
If diet alone can’t increase your iron levels, an iron supplement may be recommended by your doctor. The most common forms are ferrous sulfate, ferrous gluconate, and ferrous fumarate. Take iron supplements with water or juice on an empty stomach to maximize absorption.
Too much supplemental iron can be toxic, so always stick to the recommended dose. Iron supplements can cause constipation, nausea, abdominal pain, and dark stools. Notify your doctor if side effects become severe.
Other vitamins and minerals
Ensuring adequate intake of other essential nutrients helps the body utilize iron properly. Important micronutrients that work with iron include:
- Vitamin C – Enhances iron absorption
- Vitamin A – Mobilizes stored iron
- B vitamins – Needed for red blood cell formation
- Copper – Assists iron metabolism
- Zinc – Combines with iron in enzymes
Eating a balanced diet with fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and dairy provides sufficient amounts of these vitamins and minerals.
When to see a doctor
Consult your doctor if you have symptoms of iron deficiency along with abnormal sensitivity to cold. Unexplained coldness lasting more than a few weeks may indicate an underlying health condition.
See your doctor promptly if cold sensitivity is accompanied by:
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Frequent infections
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Bleeding or bruising
These can indicate a more serious problem that requires medical evaluation. Your doctor can check your iron levels and rule out other possible causes like anemia from vitamin deficiencies or illnesses affecting red blood cells.
Low iron levels can indeed cause unusual sensations of coldness. Iron is vital for producing hemoglobin that supplies oxygen to tissues needed to generate body heat.
Women, infants, athletes, and those with malabsorption conditions have the highest risk of iron deficiency anemia. Treatment focuses on addressing the underlying cause of iron loss and improving dietary intake.
Taking iron supplements may quickly help normalize iron levels within 1-2 months. Eating vitamin C-rich foods boosts absorption of iron from meals. Once iron status is corrected, the body typically regains its ability to maintain normal temperature.