Could eating more iron stop you feeling tired?

By Fiona Hunter, Nutritionist

One in five of us feels unusually tired at any time and one in ten suffers from prolonged fatigue, according to The Royal College of Psychiatrists. This can sometimes be without any obvious reason.

It’s surprising, then, that we are only just starting to understand some of the causes of tiredness and fatigue. What’s more, new research is throwing up some surprising facts about the role that diet plays.

How does iron deficiency affect you?

Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. More than 30% of the world's population is anaemic, according to the World Health Organisation.

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey finds that 48% of girls aged 11–18, 27% of women aged 19–64 and nearly one in ten boys aged 11–18 in the UK have low iron intakes. What effect does this have on energy levels? Watch the video to find out.

Fiona Hunter explains the impact of iron deficiency on the body.

Can boosting your iron help if you're not anaemic?

Experts believe that increasing your iron intake may give you more energy if your iron stores are low, even if your haemoglobin (the part of your red blood cells that carries oxygen) levels are above the cut-off for anaemia. Non-anaemic iron deficiency is estimated to affect about three times as many people as iron-deficiency anaemia. The British Medical Journal and NHS agree that it may be an under-recognised cause of fatigue, particularly among women of child-bearing age.

To put this problem into context, according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, 5% of 15–18 year old girls have iron-deficiency anaemia, but nearly 24% have low iron stores. Among 35–49 year old women, 4.8% have iron-deficiency anaemia, but nearly 12.5% have low iron stores. Anaemia and low iron stores are rare among boys and men under the age of 64, but are significant risks for those over the age of 65.

Does that mean you should take iron supplements if you feel tired? Not necessarily – it is important to see your doctor and ask for a diagnosis as it is possible to overdose on iron.

What should you eat to reduce tiredness?

Can other deficiencies cause fatigue?

Many of us take vitamin or mineral supplements. But how commonly is tiredness caused by vitamin or mineral deficiencies apart from iron?

Vitamin D: One-fifth of the UK population has low levels of vitamin D. Symptoms include fatigue. Vitamin D can be sourced from sunlight and supplements.

Vitamin B12: There's low vitamin B12 status in all age groups. Tiredness is a symptom of B12 or folate anaemia, but it's usually caused by absorption issues.

Zinc: 11–18 year olds can have too little zinc, but serious deficiency is rare. Be careful with supplements, as taking too much zinc can lead to anaemia.

Vitamin A: A substantial proportion of children aged 11–18 consume below the recommended amount of vitamin A. However, a deficiency severe enough to show symptoms is rare.

Always consult a doctor

Always consult a doctor if you are feeling tired to rule out a serious medical cause. Also speak to your GP before taking supplements, as it is possible to overdose on some vitamins and minerals.