Reviewed by Jill Johnson, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Are you getting enough oysters, liver, lentils, or white beans in your diet? These foods are great sources of iron, a nutrient your body relies on to function.
Iron is a mineral that takes on many roles in your well-being. Perhaps its most important function is the production of hemoglobin in your red blood cells.
These cells carry oxygen throughout your bloodstream. This oxygen is then taken to all parts of your body, from your internal organs to your hair follicles — the thin, tunnel-like structures inside your scalp from which your hair grows.
Without a sufficient amount of iron, your body may develop iron deficiency, which can worsen to become iron deficiency anemia. This condition may affect numerous aspects of your health and well-being, from your energy levels to your appearance, including your ability to grow hair.
Iron deficiency is quite common — in fact, an estimated 10 million people throughout the United States suffer from iron deficiency, including five million who have iron deficiency anemia.
Below, we’ve discussed what iron is, as well as why it’s so important for your health, well-being and ability to function. We’ve also listed the most common symptoms of iron deficiency, from a general feeling of weakness to aesthetic issues such as pale skin and hair loss.
Finally, we’ve explored the most recent scientific research on iron deficiency and the role it may play in hair loss, as well as your options for preventing iron deficiency anemia and maintaining a full, thick head of hair throughout your life.
Iron is an essential mineral that your body relies on for many aspects of your growth, well-being and development as a person.
The most well-known and important function of iron is its role in producing hemoglobin, which is a protein in your red blood cells. Hemoglobin allows your blood to transport oxygen, letting your muscles, organs and other tissue work properly.
Iron also plays a critical role in the production and function of certain hormones that are needed for optimal functioning.
Most people consume sufficient iron as part of their regular diet. Iron can be found in countless common foods, including poultry, red meat and seafood, beans and peas, nuts, fruits and some fortified foods, such as breads and cereals.
Iron deficiency occurs when your body doesn’t get enough iron. When this happens, red blood cells may shrink in size and contain less hemoglobin, reducing their ability to transport oxygen throughout your body.
Research also suggests that low iron levels might affect your immune function, increasing your risk of certain infections.
A variety of different factors may all play a role in the development of iron deficiency, as well as iron deficiency anemia.
Eating too few foods that contain iron
Failing to absorb sufficient amount of iron from dietary sources
Losing more blood cells and iron than can be replaced naturally by your body
Using medications that cause gastrointestinal bleeding, such as aspirin, ibuprofen or certain medications for arthritis
Some medical conditions that affect nutrient absorption, including Crohn disease and/or Celiac disease, can affect your ability to absorb iron. Some surgeries, such as gastric bypass surgery, may also prevent you from getting enough iron from your diet.
Iron deficiency is more common in women than men. Factors such as heavy menstrual periods, pregnancy or breastfeeding can all have an effect on iron levels, either by increasing the body’s need for iron or causing iron loss.
The symptoms of iron deficiency can vary significantly from person to person, and they’re often slow to develop. This is because your body stores large amounts of iron internally in the form of ferritin in your liver, spleen, muscle tissue and bone marrow.
These reserves of iron can be used when your dietary iron intake decreases, giving your body a source of “emergency iron” that can delay symptoms of iron deficiency from developing.
As your internal iron levels decline, you may gradually begin to experience certain symptoms of iron deficiency anemia. Common early symptoms of iron deficiency include:
Feelings of tiredness and fatigue
Physical weakness, particularly while exercising
Difficulty focusing, thinking or remembering information
Feelings of dizziness and loss of balance
Shortness of breath
These symptoms can vary in severity. You may feel tired throughout the day, or simply deal with occasional moments in which you feel weaker than normal. Many of these symptoms occur as a result of reduced oxygen transportation throughout your body.
Over time, iron deficiency anemia can become more noticeable and serious. As your iron levels continue to decline, you may notice one or several of the following symptoms:
Pale skin tone
Weak, brittle nails
Ulcers in your mouth
Increased hair shedding
Soreness or inflammation in your mouth
Blue coloration to the white areas of your eyes
Feelings of lightheadedness when standing
A desire to eat ice or other non-nutritious, non-food items
Uncontrolled movements of your limbs
If you notice any of these symptoms and suspect you may have iron deficiency, it’s important to let your healthcare provider know.
Iron deficiency is easy to check for using one or several tests, such as a complete blood count, reticulocyte count (a count of the number of immature red blood cells inside your bone marrow) or blood serum ferritin and/or iron test.
Getting tested can help to reduce uncertainty and give you more confidence about what’s most likely causing your symptoms.
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There’s a clear link between iron deficiency and certain forms of hair loss. However, it’s vital to keep in mind that not all forms of hair loss are caused by iron deficiency.
Overall, although there’s agreement that iron deficiency can lead to hair loss, there is yet to be any consensus on how this condition may lead to the loss of hair.
In some circles, it’s thought that hair follicles, like other human cells, are dependent on oxygen supplied by the hemoglobin in your red blood cells. Iron plays a critical role in the production of hemoglobin, and iron deficiency can result in a significant decrease in hemoglobin levels.
When this deficiency occurs, it could follow that your hair follicles will lack sufficient oxygen, an important component for their growth. This lack of oxygen may contribute to hair shedding that gives your scalp a thin, low-coverage appearance.
This school of thought is supported by the fact that iron is a cofactor of ribonucleotide reductase, an enzyme that your cells rely on to grow properly.
There’s also the possibility that iron might regulate certain hair cells, such as keratinocytes. A deficiency in iron could contribute to poor functioning of these cells, potentially resulting in hair loss.
Finally, another section of the medical community believes that iron deficiency could be linked to hair loss conditions, including alopecia areata, telogen effluvium and male and/or female pattern hair loss.
On the other side of this divide, however, are separate schools of thought that don't believe iron deficiency is linked to hair loss in any meaningful way.
Over the last few decades, numerous studies have looked into a potential relationship between low levels of iron and hair loss.
Overall, the findings of these studies don’t directly indicate that all people who are iron deficient will experience hair loss. However, they have revealed a few things:
First, although some evidence suggests that iron is a triggering factor in certain forms of hair loss, there doesn’t appear to be a causal link between iron deficiency and common types of permanent hair loss, such as androgenetic alopecia (male pattern baldness).
Instead, this type of hair loss is primarily caused by a combination of genetic factors and the effects of dihydrotestosterone (DHT).
Second, iron deficiency levels can vary dramatically in people affected by hair loss, with some displaying lower-than-normal levels or iron and others displaying healthy levels of iron despite significant hair thinning.
Third, although iron supplements appear to improve hair growth in most people affected by iron deficiency, some people don’t show improvements in hair growth even after using iron supplements for several months.
We’ve dug into more detail on this scientific research below, including looking at several studies that specifically explore the potential effects of iron deficiency on hair growth.
In one study to identify the relationship between iron and hair loss, men affected by pattern hair loss, together with premenopausal and post-menopausal women affected by female pattern hair loss (FPHL), were observed.
The study participants were screened for serum ferritin (a protein that stores iron), iron and total iron-binding capacity. There were also control groups in the study.
Among participants with male pattern hair loss, 22.7 percent displayed lower ferritin levels when compared with healthy people of the same age. Premenopausal women with FPHL also showed much lower serum levels when compared with the healthy control subjects.
This may be linked to the loss of blood and iron during menstrual periods, a known cause of iron deficiency. They also showed much lower ferritin levels when compared with postmenopausal women with FPHL.
However, postmenopausal women in this study didn't display significantly lower levels of ferritin when compared to controls.
Another study looked into the potential link between iron deficiency and hair loss by interviewing and examining 72 adult women with chronic telogen effluvium — a form of hair shedding caused by stress, nutritional deficiencies, illnesses and other health issues.
These women were compared with 30 participants in a control group. In total, 50 out of the 72 participants were found to have significantly lower ferritin levels, compared to just eight control group participants who also showed low levels of ferritin.
The 50 patients with low ferritin levels were given an iron supplement to be used daily over four months. Twenty-one reported great improvement in their hair growth, 15 saw some improvement, but 14 saw no significant change in hair growth in response to treatment with the iron supplement.
However, there were also 22 subjects with chronic telogen effluvium that showed normal ferritin levels.These subjects weren't given iron. Among them, one patient reported great improvement in hair growth, nine reported some improvement, while 12 reported no improvement at all.
Another study carried out to investigate the association between iron and alopecia areata didn’t find enough links between the conditions.
This study was carried out over one year on 23 females and 29 males with alopecia areata. The subjects were aged between three and 76 years old.
By the end of the study period, differences in total iron binding capacity levels between patients in the treatment group and patients and control group weren’t statistically significant.
Total iron binding capacity, or TIBC, refers to the blood’s ability to attach to iron and transport it around the body as an essential nutrient.
Although this research found some evidence that iron could be a triggering factor in hair loss, it was suggested that iron deficiency may affect scalp hairs where they could still be regrown — a finding that wasn’t enough to show a link between iron deficiency and alopecia areata.
Finally, a separate study involving 16 women with alopecia areata and 27 healthy members of a control group found no significant differences in iron levels between both groups. This study also found no differences in levels of other key nutrients, such as zinc and copper.
Overall, there’s still a significant divide in opinion on the effects of iron on hair loss, especially as the total amount of research on the subject is limited and primarily focused on women.
Although certain evidence suggests that iron deficiency is a triggering factor for hair loss, there’s still a lot that we don’t yet know about the effects of low iron stores or intake on hair health.
As such, it’s best to think of iron deficiency as a “maybe” when it comes to identifying the cause of your hair loss. While it’s possible for iron deficiency to affect your hair, there are several other causes of hair loss in men that may be more likely culprits.
If you're experiencing hair loss and suspect that iron deficiency may be to blame, the first course of action should be to meet with your healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis.
As we mentioned above, iron deficiency anemia can usually be diagnosed with a blood test that measures your complete blood count, reticulocyte, ferritin or iron levels.
In addition to ordering a blood test, your healthcare provider may talk to you about your general health and lifestyle to identify risk factors for iron deficiency. They may also complete a physical exam, including checking your scalp to identify other potential causes of hair loss.
Most of the time, iron deficiency can be treated by:
Taking an iron supplement. These supplements are designed to increase the stores of iron within your body. Your healthcare provider might suggest taking an iron supplement on a regular basis until your iron levels return to normal.
While most people can take iron supplements without issues, some people develop side effects such as nausea, constipation and vomiting from supplements that contain iron.
Receiving iron injections. If you can’t consume iron supplements orally, you may need to receive iron injections. These are delivered into muscle or directly into a vein, allowing your iron levels to increase rapidly.
Increasing your consumption of iron-rich foods. When iron deficiency is caused by a dietary issue, changing your diet can often help. Foods rich in iron include fish, red meat, poultry, lentils, whole-grain bread, as well as green vegetables like spinach and kale.
Consuming more vitamins. Certain vitamins help your body to absorb iron from dietary sources. For example, eating more foods that contain vitamin C, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, may improve your ability to absorb and use iron.
If you have hair shedding as a result of an iron deficiency, you could benefit from using minoxidil to stimulate hair growth.
Minoxidil is a topical hair loss medication. It promotes hair regrowth by moving your hair follicles into the anagen, or growth, phase of the hair growth cycle. It also increases blood circulation in your scalp, which may improve your hair’s access to important nutrients.
Although minoxidil is mostly used to treat male pattern hair loss, it may also help to promote hair growth after dealing with iron deficiency hair loss or shedding.
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Iron is an important nutrient that plays a role in several processes within your body, including the creation of healthy red blood cells.
When your iron intake is on the low side, it can affect your health and well-being in several ways, including by interrupting your hair cycle and causing diffuse hair loss.
If you’re starting to notice hair shedding and think iron deficiency could be to blame, you can get help by talking to your healthcare provider. They can carry out screening for iron deficiency to let you know if you’re affected and, if appropriate, help you to restore your iron levels to normal.
Worried about hair loss in general? We offer a range of hair loss treatments that you can use to put a stop to issues such as male pattern baldness, including FDA-approved medications such as minoxidil and finasteride.
You can get started by participating in a hair loss consultation online and, if appropriate, receive medication to help you stop hair loss and promote healthier, more consistent hair growth.