Can Anemia Affect Sleep?


Written by Alison Deshong

Reviewed by Dr. Michael Breus

Our Editorial Process

Table of Contents

Anemia can affect sleep in a variety of ways. For example, there are associations between anemia and insomnia as well as anemia and restless legs syndrome. In addition, anemia can cause symptoms that may make it difficult to sleep, like headaches, weakness, and tingling or numbness in the hands or feet. 

What Are the Effects of Anemia on Sleep?

Research has found that there is an association between anemia and insomnia, though the reason for this connection remains unclear. Additionally, iron deficiency anemia is linked to restless legs syndrome (RLS)

Insomnia is a condition in which a person has trouble falling or staying asleep. Several studies have found an association between anemia and the chance of developing insomnia. Researchers are still working to understand this relationship, though several theories have been proposed.

  • Genetics: Studies have identified a gene that is associated with both anemia and insomnia. Called MEIS1, this gene may affect both how iron is processed in the body and a person’s risk of insomnia.
  • Fatigue: Fatigue is a common symptom of anemia. Anemia-related fatigue may lead to insomnia because it makes it more difficult to get physical activity during the day. Fatigue may also cause people to avoid activities that maintain their circadian rhythms, increasing their risk of sleep difficulties.
  • Health problems: Both insomnia and anemia are associated with a variety of other health issues. Some researchers propose that anemia and insomnia often develop simultaneously due to a person’s worsening overall health.

Iron deficiency anemia is associated with the sleep disorder restless legs syndrome. Restless legs syndrome is characterized by an irresistible urge to move the legs when a person is seated or lying down. This compulsion to move the legs can make it difficult for a person with the syndrome to fall or stay asleep.

Restless legs syndrome is sometimes treated with iron supplementation, which may also reduce the chances of developing sleep issues in people with iron deficiency anemia. However, not all cases of restless legs syndrome are linked to iron deficiency. 

Experts advise against iron supplementation without first testing a person’s iron levels in order to avoid iron overload, which can itself be harmful.

What Is Anemia?

Anemia is diagnosed when a person has insufficient healthy red blood cells in their body. The role of red blood cells is to carry oxygen throughout the body. In anemia, tissues are deprived of oxygen because there are too few red cells or the red cells are not functioning properly. 

There are many different kinds of anemia. The most common type of anemia is iron deficiency anemia, which is caused by a lack of iron in the diet, trouble absorbing iron from the diet, or blood loss. However, there are many other types of anemia, including anemias caused by other nutritional deficiencies, inherited conditions, diseases like cancer, and certain medicines. 

A number of risk factors have been found that put people at a higher risk of developing anemia. 

  • Blood loss: People who lose blood through frequent blood donation, intestinal bleeding, menstruation, or other conditions can become anemic. 
  • Age: As a person ages, they are more likely to develop anemia. Anemia is more common in people over the age of 60. 
  • Dietary habits: People who don’t get enough of certain nutrients, including iron, folic acid, and vitamin B12, have a higher risk of developing anemia. Some people also have difficulty absorbing nutrients, which can lead to anemia. 
  • Cancer: Cancers like leukemia and lymphoma can interfere with your body’s ability to make enough red blood cells. In addition, treatments like chemotherapy can also contribute to anemia.
  • Other health problems: Chronic inflammation, kidney disease, and autoimmune diseases can prevent your body from making enough red blood cells.

What Are Symptoms of Anemia?

Not all people with anemia experience symptoms. Symptoms may become more noticeable as anemia progresses and can include:

  • Pale skin
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Dizziness or fainting 
  • Irritability
  • Shortness of breath
  • Appetite loss 
  • Restless legs syndrome 

When to Seek Medical Help

Occasional trouble sleeping is common, but if you experience insomnia or another problem with sleep that is severe or frequent enough to interfere with your life, it’s time to consult with a health care provider. They can help you learn what may be causing your sleep difficulties and make a plan for improving your rest.

If you suspect you have anemia, it is a good idea to discuss your concerns with a health care provider. Mild anemia is common and easy to treat, but sometimes anemia can be caused by serious conditions like bleeding or other health conditions that should be treated immediately. 

About The Author

Alison Deshong

Staff Writer, Product Testing Team

Alison is a health writer with ample experience reading and interpreting academic, peer-reviewed research. Based in San Diego, she is published in the journal PLOS Genetics and the Journal of Biological Chemistry and has been a copywriter for SmartBug media. With a master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of California, Davis, she has nearly a decade of academic research experience in life sciences. She enjoys helping people cut through the noise to understand the bigger picture about sleep and health. Alison likes to stay active with rock climbing, hiking, and walking her dog.

  • POSITION: Stomach Sleeper
  • TEMPERATURE: Neutral Sleeper

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