Iron: Who Needs It and Why?

When was the last time you considered if you’re getting enough iron? If you are struggling with fatigue – feeling tired and worn out on a regular basis despite getting enough sleep at night – it could be caused by iron deficiency.

Iron is an essential mineral, meaning that it is necessary for good health. The body cannot make this mineral (or any mineral for that matter) so it must be obtained through diet and/or supplements. We need iron to produce hemoglobin and myoglobin, proteins that are involved in the transport and storage of oxygen. Iron is also important to maintain healthy hair, skin and nails, and to support proper immune function and DNA synthesis.

You might be surprised by who is at risk for Iron Deficiency Anemia

Without adequate iron, your body cannot make enough red blood cells, a condition called iron deficiency anemia. This is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. In the United States, it is estimated to affect 9-12 percent of women ages 12 through 49, and 2 percent of men.

Iron deficiency anemia can lead to fatigue, headache, hair loss, brittle nails, rapid heart rate, an increased risk of infections and shortness of breath on exertion. Emerging evidence suggests that iron deficiency may also increase stroke risk by making blood platelets stickier. In children, iron deficiency causes developmental delays and behavioral disturbances. In pregnant women, a deficiency of iron can increase the risk of pre-term delivery and small birth weight.

Those at greatest risk for iron deficiency include women who are pregnant or have heavy menstrual bleeding; vegetarians; those with malabsorption syndromes such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease or bleeding ulcers; and those who have undergone surgery.

Where we get most of our dietary iron

Dietary iron is available in two forms: heme iron, which is found in meat; and nonheme iron, which is found in plant and dairy foods. The majority of iron we consume is nonheme but calcium, sugar- and starch-based fibers, tea, coffee and wine can inhibit our ability to absorb it. On the other hand, vitamin C-rich foods, galactomannan-based soluble fibers and some supplements can enhance iron absorption.

The recommended daily intake of iron depends on your age, gender and overall health. Infants and toddlers require more because their bodies are growing and developing: 10 mg for ages four to eight and 8 mg for ages nine to 13. During puberty, women need more iron to compensate for menstrual period blood loss. It is recommended that women ages 19 to 50 obtain 18 mg per day, while men in this age range only require 8 mg daily. After menopause, a woman needs 8 mg per day, the same daily amount as men.

Easy steps for getting more iron

A simple blood test can determine whether your iron level is adequate or low. If your iron is low, eating iron-rich foods may help. Examples include meat, poultry, fortified cereals, dried fruit, and beans, lentils and peas. When diet alone does not help, then it is important to take a supplement, under the supervision of your health care provider.

Iron supplements vary greatly in the type of iron they provide, the amount of elemental iron they contain, tolerability and format (tablet, capsule or liquid). Common side effects associated with most iron supplements include nausea, upset stomach, diarrhea, constipation and dark stools. To reduce the risk of upset stomach, start with a lower dosage and gradually increase your intake.

Taking iron with or after meals may help. And consider adding soluble fiber to your diet to combat constipation. Shop for supplements and foods fortified with SunActive Iron. This form of iron (ferric pyrophosphate) is mild on the digestive system and does not have any metallic taste. It is found in a range of children’s cereals to rice and dairy products.

Most of us take steps to ensure we consume enough calcium each day. We should be similarly concerned about our dietary intake of other minerals including iron.