What About Iron?
Iron is an abundant metal in the earth. Most living things need iron to survive. It is needed in many proteins and enzymes in the human body. Iron is an essential ingredient in the proteins that carry blood through the body and in cell development. Almost two-thirds of iron in the body is found in hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to tissues. If you don’t have enough iron, your body can’t make enough healthy oxygen-carrying red blood cells. A lack of red blood cells is called iron deficiency anemia.
Smaller amounts of iron are found in myoglobin, a protein that helps supply oxygen to muscle, and in enzymes that assist biochemical reactions. Iron is also found in proteins that store iron for future needs and that transport iron in blood. Iron stores are regulated by intestinal iron absorption.
Who Needs Iron?
When you don’t have enough iron, not enough oxygen can get to your cells. When that happens we get tired, fatigued and decreased immunity which affects how we go about our daily tasks. Other symptoms include decreased attention span, irritability, decreased immune function leading to more frequent illness, swollen and red tongue, poor performance at work or school, and delayed or impaired cognitive development in infants and young children.
There is such a thing as getting too much iron which can cause death by heart or liver failure. It increases the risk for liver disease (cirrhosis, cancer), heart attack or heart failure, diabetes mellitus, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, metabolic syndrome, hypothyroidism, hypogonadism, numerous symptoms and in some cases premature death. Iron mismanagement resulting in overload can accelerate such neurodegenerative diseases as Alzheimer’s, early-onset Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.
Iron Deficiency Symptoms
“People often don’t know they have anemia until they have signs or symptoms — they appear pale or ‘sallow,’ are fatigued, or have difficulty exercising,” Chottiner says.
If you’re low in iron, you may also:
- Feel short of breath
- Have a fast heartbeat
- Have cold hands and feet
- Crave strange substances such as dirt or clay
- Have brittle and spoon shaped nails or hair loss
- Sores at the corner of the mouth
- A sore tongue – glossitis (an inflamed tongue)
- Severe iron deficiency can cause difficulty in swallowing
- feeling tired and weak
- decreased work and school performance
- slow cognitive and social development during childhood
- difficulty maintaining body temperature
- decreased immune function, which increases susceptibility to infection
If you’re tired and dragging, see your doctor. “It’s fairly easy to detect and diagnose the different stages of iron deficiency with a simple blood test,” Thomas says. Women who are pregnant and people with a gastrointestinal disorder such as Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, or celiac disease should have their iron tested on a regular basis.
Who Usually Needs Extra Iron
You might need more iron, either from dietary sources or from an iron supplement:
- pregnant and/or breastfeeding women
- preterm and low birth weight infants
- older infants and toddlers
- teenage girls
- women of childbearing age, especially those with heavy menstrual losses
- people with renal failure, especially those undergoing routine dialysis which can remove iron from the body
- people with gastrointestinal disorders who do not absorb iron normally (such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis)
- Have an ulcer, which can cause blood loss
- Take too many antacids, which can prevent your body from absorbing iron
- Have had weight loss (bariatric) surgery
- Work out a lot (intense exercise can destroy red blood cells)
If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you may also need to take an iron supplement, because the body doesn’t absorb the type of iron found in plants as well as it absorbs the iron from meat.
Celiac Disease and Crohn’s Syndrome are associated with gastrointestinal malabsorption and may impair iron absorption. Iron supplementation may be needed if these conditions result in iron deficiency anemia.
Foods Containing Iron
- red meat
- dark meat chicken and turkey
- beans, lentils
- iron-fortified cereals
- dark leafy green vegetables and dried fruit
NOTE: Meat-derived iron, known as heme iron, is more easily absorbed by the body. Plant-derived iron, known as non-heme iron, is not as well absorbed and requires vitamin C (or meat) to improve absorption. In addition, absorption is diminished by calcium (dairy products), fiber, tea, and coffee.
If you are a vegetarian or vegan, be sure to consume iron-rich foods with vitamin C rich foods such as citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli, kiwi, melons, red and green sweet peppers, and dark green vegetables whenever possible.
Here is a bigger list:
How Much Iron Do You Need?
How much iron you need each day depends on your age, gender, and overall health.
Infants and toddlers need more iron than adults, in general, because their bodies are growing so quickly. In childhood, boys and girls need the same amount of iron — 10 milligrams daily from ages 4 to 8, and 8 mg daily from ages 9 to 13.
Starting at adolescence, a woman’s daily iron needs increase. Women need more iron because they lose blood each month during their period. That’s why women from ages 19 to 50 need to get 18 mg of iron each day, while men the same age can get away with just 8 mg.
After menopause, a woman’s iron needs drop as her menstrual cycle ends. After a woman begins menopause, both men and women need the same amount of iron — 8 mg each day.
Can Iron Supplements Cause Side Effects?
Iron supplements can cause side effects, usually stomach upset such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dark stools, or constipation. Pregnant women are especially susceptible to constipation. Adding extra fiber to your diet can help relieve this symptom. A stool softener may also make you feel better.
Starting with a low dose of iron and then gradually increasing the dose to the daily recommended amount may help minimize side effects. If your iron supplements are bothering your stomach, your doctor can adjust the dose or form of iron you use. You can also try taking the supplements with food.
Iron Overload Symptoms
Unlike some supplements, when the subject is iron, more is definitely not better. Adults shouldn’t take any more than 45 mg of iron a day unless they are being treated with iron under close medical supervision.
For children, iron overdose can be especially toxic. “Iron supplements have killed young children because their needs for iron compared to an adult’s are relatively low,” Thomas says. If you take iron supplements, it is very important to keep them in a high, locked cabinet, far out of your children’s reach. Symptoms of iron poisoning include severe vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, dehydration, and bloody stool in children.
It’s difficult for adults to overdose on iron just from food and supplements, because an adult body has systems in place to regulate the amount of iron it absorbs. However, people with the inherited condition hemochromatosis have trouble regulating their iron absorption.
Although most people only absorb about 10% of the iron they consume, people with hemochromatosis absorb up to 30%. As a result, the iron in their body can build up to dangerous levels. That excess iron can deposit in organs such as the liver, heart, and pancreas, which can lead to conditions like cirrhosis, heart failure, and diabetes. For that reason, people with hemochromatosis should not take iron supplements.
Taking an Iron Supplement
If your iron is low, eating a diet that is high in iron-rich foods such as fortified cereals, red meat, dried fruit, and beans may not be enough to give you what you need. Your doctor might recommend that you take an iron supplement. When you take an iron supplement make sure you are getting Vitamin C to help your body absorb the iron.
Prenatal vitamins usually include iron, but not all prenatal vitamins contain the recommended amount. Check with your doctor before taking any supplement.
While you are taking iron supplements, your doctor should test your blood to see if your iron levels have improved.
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Filed under: Vitamins
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