This nutrient deficiency could be the culprit behind your brain fog, sluggishness, and lack of concentration

Can’t focus on the task at hand or feeling sluggish beyond the afternoon slump? One possible cause: iron-deficiency anemia (IDA). 

About 3 million Americans have anemia, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention Disease and Prevention (CDC), and those are just the people who’ve been diagnosed. Many others live with the condition for years without realizing it. 

“I think I’ve had low iron for years,” Lisa Taylor, a 42-year-old business owner in McKinney, Texas, tells Fortune. “I remember in my early twenties I went to donate blood and almost passed out. I started to get a little sweaty and a little dizzy. I didn’t say anything.” 

Like Taylor, many people with IDA overlook or downplay their symptoms prior to receiving a proper diagnosis. 

“When someone has anemia, they don’t have enough circulating red blood cells so their body can’t operate at 100%,” Maya Bloomberg, a nurse practitioner in the hematology division at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, tells Fortune. “Common symptoms include fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, palpitations, pale skin, dizziness, cold hands and feet.”

When decreased oxygen is being delivered to the brain, it can also cause brain fog. Bloomberg adds, “This symptom can lead to difficulty thinking, concentrating, processing information, problem solving, forgetfulness, and feeling mentally sluggish.”

For many working people, productivity is a top priority. If you’re unable to complete your projects or meet certain deadlines due to struggles with IDA, it could impact your career.  

The first step to combating these symptoms and addressing the disorder is to schedule a checkup with your doctor to find out what’s causing the anemia.  

What is anemia?

Get a proper diagnosis

Describe your symptoms to your doctor and don’t minimize them.   

“If you even think that you’re not feeling okay or something’s a little bit off, don’t brush it off as nothing,” Taylor suggests. “Just go get checked, get a blood panel run, and make sure your levels are okay.”

Your doctor will run tests and look for red blood cell size and color, check the percentage of your blood volume made up with red blood cells, monitor your hemoglobin and ferritin levels.    

For Taylor, her checkup revealed her IDA diagnosis. “My hemoglobin was around 10.0 or 10.1” Taylor says. “So, pretty low.” 

Identify the underlying cause

If you’re diagnosed with IDA, it’s important to know what’s causing the disorder.  

“Anemia can be caused by nutritional deficiencies, bleeding, certain medications, and some forms can be inherited,” Nikka Kanani, a naturopathic doctor in Costa Mesa, California tells Fortune. “Women who are menstruating, pregnant women, and people with chronic health conditions are often most at risk for anemia.”

Unfortunately, some doctors don’t dig deep enough for answers. 

“My biggest pet peeve is when individuals are found to have iron deficiency and instructed to take iron supplements,” says Bloomberg. “However, they are never evaluated for the actual cause of the anemia.” 

If your panel points to anemia, your doctor can order additional testing to identify the underlying cause. 

Taylor, who owns a laser engraving shop, attributes her anemia to her periods. 

“I have a pretty heavy and long menstrual cycle,” she says. “That is likely the cause because they’ve run every other test.”

Find the right solutions 

After figuring out the underlying cause, the next plan of action is treatment. For many, iron supplements are the answer. Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter iron pills to replenish the iron stores in your body. However, these tablets are not a one-size-fits-all solution. 

“I tried taking oral iron, but my body didn’t process it,” says Taylor. “I tried different forms of that and that just didn’t work.” 

Now, the mom of two, who had to focus extra hard to do her job successfully, gets Venofer iron infusions. Administered intravenously, it takes up to three weeks to feel the effects and last about six months. 

“I feel normal after having it and it definitely clears up the brain fog,” Taylor says.

Make lifestyle changes 

To keep brain fog at bay, lifestyle changes help too. “Lifestyle habits contribute to brain fog, especially high stress levels, which can negatively impact all aspects of our lives,” says Bloomberg. “Stress reduction techniques, such as meditation, yoga, and simply spending time in nature can help reduce stress levels.”

Taylor knows this firsthand. In addition to her iron infusions, she stays active by using an at-home elliptical machine. She also incorporates iron-rich foods like red meat and lentils into her diet. 

“Eating a diet rich in the nutrients required to produce red blood cells can help alleviate symptoms of anemia, which includes iron, vitamin B12 and folate,” says Bloomberg. “Taking vitamin C with iron-rich foods can increase iron absorption.”

Boost energy and increase productivity

With the proper treatment, those with IDA will see an improvement in their everyday lives. Their energy levels can increase, as well as their productivity. 

“When my hemoglobin is up and my iron’s good, there’s basically no brain fog,” says Taylor. “I can think clearly and process things clearly.” 

Taylor adds, “You just don’t know how bad you feel until it’s corrected. It’s like a veil has been lifted. I am a different person.”

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