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Headaches and Iron Deficiency

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 1 Mar 2018 | comments*Discuss
Migraine Headache Iron Deficiency

Headaches are a common symptom of iron deficiency. In cases where iron deficiency is prolonged headaches may even become chronic. Iron deficiency can also lead to anaemia, which is defined as a decreased number of red blood cells. It occurs when the quantity of iron in the blood is not adequate enough to form haemoglobin. Haemoglobin is found in red blood cells; it transports oxygen from the lungs and throughout the body.


Various anaemia types exist and all entail a scarcity of red blood cells. However, iron-deficiency anaemia is the most common and often affects women due to the iron losses each month from menstruation. In fact, the iron losses due to menstruation may therefore contribute to frequent 'menstrual headaches' that are often solely attributed to hormonal changes.

Iron can be an important mineral in the treatment of migraines and headaches. In iron deficiency anaemia, the blood oxygen is decreased, meaning that its ability to transfer oxygen is compromised. This, in turn, causes blood vessels to dilate and thus changes blood pressure, which then triggers headaches. Some adults with minor iron deficiency may find that headaches are infrequent and mild while others who have a severe deficiency may suffer from intense and highly painful headaches on a regular basis.

Some of the other symptoms of iron deficiency are:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Pale skin
  • Circulation: sensitivity to cold
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fainting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hair loss
  • Difficulty swallowing

Treating Iron Deficiency to Prevent Headaches

Iron is a mineral where caution must be exercised when supplementing. Iron is an oxidant and iron overload can be just as harmful as iron deficiency. Only supplement with iron if your doctor has suggested you do so, and be careful that you take any supplements specifically as directed. Some people find that a liquid formula is more palatable and easier to consume and others find it also helps to prevent constipation, a common side effect of iron supplements. If it is determined that iron deficiency is causing your headaches, try to increase your consumption of iron-rich foods. Good sources of iron include:

  • Lean red meats
  • Chicken liver
  • Enriched breakfast cereals
  • Blackstrap molasses
  • Beans
  • Dried fruits
  • Nuts

The form iron takes is very important in the quality of absorption. Non-haeme iron is found primarily in vegetable and grain sources and it not well absorbed. Haeme iron is found in meats and is generally very well absorbed. To increase the absorption of iron, numerous co-factors are indicated; ascorbic acid, otherwise known as vitamin C is a particularly significant one. To increase your absorption of non-haeme iron rich foods, it is suggested that you consume a food rich in ascorbic acid. Citrus foods, for example, would provide adequate ascorbic acid to enhance iron absorption.

Iron Overload and Headaches

As mentioned, do be cautious when consuming supplements. On the flip side, iron overload has been shown to possibly contribute to headaches. Some people may be more likely to suffer from migraines triggered by iron. It is thought that they have a higher accumulation of iron in the body tissues or perhaps an abnormal iron metabolism. Those who do have altered iron metabolism may have suffered from chronic infections or other illnesses but a precise reason is still not known. The important thing to remember is that you don't want to overdo supplementation and end up intensifying the headaches that you were trying to eliminate.

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Thank you for your informative article. I paid a visit to the Blood Bank and donated whole blood during late December 2017. In January 2018 had to attend an annual specialist appointment. Upon reviewing my full blood count they told me that I was now Anaemic. I can confirm that it is now March and I am taking Spatone (liquid iron supplement) daily and am still experiencing the effects of anaemia. My symptoms include: extreme fatigue, tired all the time, hair loss, feeling disorientated, a little spaced out and most recently I've been suffering with this chronic headache that will not go away and is not helped when taking Panadol. It sure does take a long time to restore Haemaglobin levels once they have dropped this low. The effects of anaemia can be truly debilitating.
Jacqui D - 1-Mar-18 @ 12:56 AM
For the last year I've been getting shooting pains up and down the left side of my head which was diagnosed as trigeminal neuralgia and was given Tegretol which doesn't seem to have helped a lot to be honest. I'm worried because about 15 years ago I used to drink very heavy and then stopped for a long time and then started doing it sensibly, which I stopped 3 years ago to look after my mum who became ill. I was fine for the first 2 years but started getting these headaches on the 3rd. Since this all started I have got a lazy eye and high heart rate aswell as double vision off and on. Does this sound like wet brain as I'm terrified.
Jad - 8-Mar-17 @ 11:19 AM
Your symptoms are also common with diabetes.Be careful!
glemiles - 15-May-16 @ 6:03 PM
I have found this site very informative. I have been suffering from constant headaches, dizziness & blurred vision. My G.P hasn't been too helpfull in resolving my problems! At least I now know that this is a normal side-effect of anaemia! Many thanks.
sugar girl - 14-Mar-11 @ 11:33 AM
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