Iron is a vital mineral for the proper functioning of hemoglobin, a protein necessary for carrying oxygen in the blood. Iron also plays a role in various other important processes in the body.
Iron deficiency in the blood can lead to a range of serious health problems, including iron deficiency anemia . The United States has about 10 million people, and their low iron levels of about 5 mil y its A has been diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia.
This MNT Information Center feature is part of a collection of articles on the health benefits of popular vitamins and minerals. It provides an in-depth look at recommended iron intake, possible health benefits, foods high in iron, and the possible health risks of consuming too much iron.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) varies with ages, but most pregnant women need it.
Iron supports healthy pregnancy, increased energy, and better athletic performance. Iron deficiency is most common in female athletes.
Canned oysters, fortified grains, and white beans are the best dietary iron sources. Too much iron can increase the risk of liver cancer and diabetes.
The recommended Daily (RDA) for elemental iron depends on a person’s age and gender. Vegetarians also have different iron requirements.
Pregnancy and after:
With dietary measures alone, such as plant-based diets, when people find it difficult to get enough iron, iron supplements can help. It is better to try to consume enough in the diet alone by eliminating or reducing factors that may interfere with iron absorption and consuming iron-rich foods.
This is because many foods rich in iron contain a range of other beneficial nutrients that work together to support overall health.
Iron helps maintain many vital functions in the body, including general energy and focus, gastrointestinal processes, immune system, and body temperature regulation.
The benefits of iron are often not noticed until a person cannot get enough. Iron deficiency anemia can cause fatigue, heart palpitations, pale skin color, and shortness of breath.
Iron is important for maintaining a healthy pregnancy.
Blood volume and red blood cell production increase significantly during pregnancy to provide oxygen and nutrients to the growing fetus. As a result, the demand for iron also increases. While the body typically maximizes iron absorption during pregnancy, inadequate iron intake or other factors that affect the way iron is absorbed can lead to iron deficiency.
Low iron intake during pregnancy increases the risk of preterm birth and low birth weight, as well as the risk of low iron stores and impaired cognitive or behavioral development in babies. Pregnant women with low iron may be more prone to infection because iron also supports the immune system.
It is clear that iron supplements are needed for both pregnant and iron-deficient women. However, research is ongoing on the possibility of recommending supplemental iron to all pregnant women, including those with normal iron levels. It is claimed that all pregnant women should take 30 to 60 milligrams (mg) of iron supplements each day of their pregnancy, regardless of their iron levels.
Insufficient iron in the diet can affect the body’s energy utilization efficiency. Iron carries oxygen to muscles and the brain and is essential for both mental and physical performance. Low iron levels can lead to lack of focus, increased irritability, and decreased stamina.
Iron deficiency is more common among athletes, especially young female athletes than individuals who do not lead an active lifestyle.
This seems to be particularly true for female endurance athletes like long distance runners. Some experts suggest that female endurance athletes should add an additional 10mg of elemental iron per day to the current RDA for iron intake.
Iron deficiency in athletes lowers athletic performance and weakens immune system activity. Hemoglobin deficiency can greatly reduce performance during physical exertion, as it reduces the body’s ability to transport oxygen to the muscles.
Iron has low bioavailability, which means the small intestine does not absorb large amounts easily. This reduces its availability for use and increases the likelihood of deficiency.
The efficiency of absorption depends on a number of factors including:
There are two types of dietary iron known as heme and non-heme. Animal food sources, including meat and seafood, contain both iron. Heme iron is more easily absorbed by the body.
Non-heme iron, the species found in plants, requires the body to take more than one step to absorb it. Plant-based iron sources include beans, nuts, soy, vegetables, and fortified grains.
The bioavailability of both iron from animal sources can be up to 40 percent. Nonheme iron from plant-based sources, however, has a bioavailability of between 2 and 20 percent. Therefore, the RDA for vegetarians is 1.8 times higher than for meat-eaters to compensate for the lower absorption level from plant-based foods.
Consuming foods rich in vitamin C along with non-heme iron sources can significantly increase iron absorption.
When following a vegetarian diet, it is also important to consider food and drug ingredients that inhibit or reduce iron absorption, such as:
Some of the best sources of iron include:
Calcium can slow the absorption of both and nonheme iron. In most cases, a typical Western diet is considered balanced in enhancers and inhibitors of iron absorption.
In adults, doses for oral iron supplements can be as high as 60 to 120 mg of elemental iron per day. These doses typically apply to pregnant and severely iron-deficient women. Splitting doses throughout the day can help with an upset stomach, so iron supplementation is a common side effect.
Adults with a healthy digestive system have a very low risk of iron overload from dietary sources.
People with genetic disorders called hemochromatosis are at a high risk of iron burden as they absorb excess iron from food compared to non-food.
This can cause iron to build up in the liver and other organs. It can also cause free radicals that damage cells and tissues, including the liver, heart, and pancreas, and increase the risk of certain cancers.
Frequent taking of iron supplements containing more than 20 mg of elemental iron at a time may cause nausea, vomiting and stomach pain, especially if the supplement is not taken with food. In severe cases, an overdose of iron can cause organ failure, internal bleeding, coma, seizures, and even death.
It is important to keep iron supplements out of the reach of children to reduce the risk of fatal overdose.
Accidental ingestion of iron supplements was the most common cause of death from drug overdose in children younger than 6 years until the 1990s, according to Poison Control.
Changes in the production and distribution of iron supplements have helped reduce accidental iron overdoses in children, such as replacing sugar coatings on iron tablets with film coatings, using childproof bottle caps, and individually packaging high doses of iron. Only one death was reported from an iron overdose between 1998 and 2002.
Some studies have suggested that excessive iron intake may increase the risk of liver cancer. Other research shows that high iron levels can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes .
More recently, scientists have begun to investigate the possible role of excess iron in the development and progression of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease . Iron can also have a directly damaging role in brain damage from bleeding in the brain. Studies in mice have shown that high iron levels increase the risk of osteoarthritis.
Iron supplements may reduce the availability of various medications, including levodopa, used to treat restless legs syndrome and Parkinson’s disease, and levothyroxine, used to treat a low-functioning thyroid.
Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) used to treat reflux can reduce the amount of iron that can be absorbed by the body from both food and supplements.
Discuss iron supplements with a doctor or healthcare professional, as some symptoms of iron overload may resemble iron deficiency. Excess iron can be dangerous, and iron supplements are not recommended except in situations where a deficiency is diagnosed or when a person is at high risk of developing iron deficiency.
It is preferable to achieve optimal iron intake and status through diet rather than supplements. This can help minimize the risk of iron overdose and ensure a good intake of other nutrients in food alongside iron.
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