Food cravings can occur for a range of reasons that are physical, mental, and emotional. And while some cravings may represent a sudden and intense but passing desire for a specific food, others are your body’s convoluted way of alerting you to a more persistent underlying condition. Experts say there’s one particular craving which may point to the latter, and if you experience it, a blood test can help you get to the root of the problem. Read on to find out which craving can signal a potentially serious health condition, and why it’s important not to try to diagnose or treat it yourself.
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Craving ice on a hot day is both normal and common. But if your craving is persistent, and seems unrelated to heat or thirst, it may be due to a nutritional deficiency. “Doctors use the term ‘pica’ to describe craving and chewing substances that have no nutritional value—such as ice, clay, soil, or paper,” explains Rajiv K. Pruthi, M.B.B.S., on behalf of the Mayo Clinic. “Craving and chewing ice (pagophagia) is often associated with iron deficiency, with or without anemia,” he adds.
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional disorder worldwide, notes a 2013 study in the journal American Family Physician.
Pruthi says that while the exact cause for ice cravings is unclear, researchers have begun to examine their connection to iron deficiency. “At least one study indicates that ice chewing might increase alertness in people with iron deficiency anemia,” he writes.
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In patients with iron deficiency anemia, the blood lacks adequate amounts of healthy red blood cells. This impacts the hemoglobin—the molecules in the blood which are tasked with carrying oxygen to the body’s tissues. As a result, the tissues can become weakened and less able to function normally.
Iron deficiency can affect anyone, but tends to affect women more frequently than men. You may be at high risk of iron deficiency if you have heavy menstrual periods, are pregnant, breast-feeding or have recently given birth, have a low-iron diet, have certain gastrointestinal conditions, or have undergone certain surgical procedures. Your doctor can help you assess whether you are at high risk for iron deficiency anemia.
Individuals with iron deficiency anemia often feel tired, weak, or short of breath. If you develop the condition, you may also experience chest pain, rapid heartbeat, poor appetite, headache, dizziness, or lightheadedness as a result of anemia. Some people with anemia may develop pale skin, hair loss, cold hands and feet, tongue inflammation, restless legs, or brittle nails.
Because these symptoms are not unique to anemia and could suggest a range of conditions, it’s important to bring them to your doctor’s attention if you notice them.
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If you suspect that you may have an iron deficiency, it may be tempting to try to correct the problem on your own through dietary changes, or with nutritional supplements. However, the Mayo Clinic advises that “iron deficiency anemia isn’t something to self-diagnose or treat.” In fact, their experts warns that “overloading the body with iron can be dangerous, because excess iron accumulation can damage your liver and cause other complications.” In rare cases, iron deficiency anemia can be the result of internal bleeding—and your doctor may wish to rule out this possibility before treating the problem. Speak with your doctor before attempting to correct an iron deficiency at home.
According to the American Society of Hematology, your physician will most likely begin their evaluation by administering a complete blood count (CBC) test. They may also check your iron serum levels by measuring the amounts of ferritin and transferrin in the blood. This can help reveal whether your body is properly transporting and storing iron—a crucial clue in diagnosing iron deficiency anemia.
Schedule an appointment with your clinician if you believe you’re showing signs of iron deficiency. Whether you can’t stop craving ice, or you’re feeling fatigued and out of breath, your doctor may be able to help.
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