Iron is the fourth most abundant element in the Earth’s crust and a vital component of the human body. It is involved in oxygen transport, energy production, growth, development, and more.
This article explains all about the mineral, its benefits, deficiency symptoms, treatments, and dietary sources. We will also look at the relationship between iron, vitamin C, and various other micronutrients. Read on for our complete guide.
The Benefits of Iron
Iron has many essential functions. It is probably best-known as a crucial component of hemoglobin, a protein that red blood cells use to transport oxygen. Approximately two-thirds of the body’s iron exists in the form of hemoglobin.
Another important iron-containing protein is myoglobin. It is responsible for transporting and storing oxygen within the muscles. Therefore, it helps to maintain muscle metabolism and healthy connective tissue.
Neuroglobin is a third iron-containing protein. It can be found in high concentrations in the nervous system. However, scientists are still investigating its precise role.
Because it facilitates oxygen transportation and storage throughout the body, iron is fundamental to our health. It is necessary for energy production, DNA synthesis and repair, and more. In children, it plays a role in neurological growth and development, including the brain.
In addition to these well-known iron health benefits, the mineral also appears to have antioxidant and beneficial pro-oxidant effects. Therefore, it is likely to play a role in maintaining cell health and preventing chronic disease.
Health Benefits of Iron: How Much Do I Need?
How much iron one needs depends on many factors, including age, gender, and general health.
For example, women of reproductive age have higher-than-average iron requirements due to blood loss during menstruation. Pregnant women also need to increase their iron intake to support healthy fetal development.
The recommended daily intakes for iron are as follows:
- Babies under six months: 0.27mg
- Infants 7–12 months: 11mg
- Children 1–3 years: 7mg
- Children 4–8 years: 10mg
- Children 9–13 years: 8mg
- Teens (male) 14–18 years: 11mg
- Teens (female) 14–18 years: 15mg
- Adults (male) 19–50: 8mg
- Adults (female) 19–50: 18mg
- Adults 51 and over: 8mg
- Pregnancy: 27mg
- Breastfeeding teens: 10mg
- Breastfeeding adults: 9mg
Iron deficiency is the most prevalent nutritional deficiency worldwide. It can occur for numerous reasons, including:
- Inadequate dietary intake
- Malabsorption conditions (celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, gastric bypass, etc.)
- Blood loss (heavy menstrual periods, frequent blood donations, etc.)
- Long-term use of aspirin or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Chronic kidney failure and dialysis
Deficiencies may also develop in association with several chronic diseases, including:
- Some types of cancer
- Heart failure
- Gastrointestinal disorders or surgery
Finally, there is a link between iron deficiency and other nutritional deficiencies, including vitamin A, copper, and zinc.
Iron Deficiency Symptoms
In its early stages, a deficiency of iron may not cause any noticeable symptoms. However, if it progresses, it can cause a severe condition called iron deficiency anemia.
The most common low iron symptoms include:
- Extreme tiredness
- Pale skin
- Difficulty concentrating
- Shortness of breath
- Cold hands and feet
- Rapid heart rate
- Chest pain
- Brittle hair and nails
- Spoon-shaped nails
- Pica (cravings for non-food items)
Iron deficiency may also cause various long-term complications, including:
- Heart problems
- Increased risk of infections
- Developmental delays in children
- Pregnancy complications (premature birth, low birth weight, etc.)
Iron Deficiency Treatment
The most suitable iron-deficiency anemia treatment will depend upon its severity.
For mild to moderate cases, doctors might recommend dietary changes with or without a high-dose iron supplement. Patients with more severe anemia might require intravenous iron infusions or red blood cell transfusions.#
It is essential to investigate whether an underlying medical condition is causing an iron deficiency.
It is also essential to investigate whether an underlying medical condition is causing the deficiency. For example, an endoscopy or colonoscopy can help to determine whether internal bleeding may be causing iron loss.
If these investigations reveal any issues, treating the underlying cause with surgery or medication should rectify the deficiency.
Sources of Iron
Most healthy people can get enough iron from their diets. However, some individuals may require a daily supplement.
Some good sources of iron are listed below.
There are two forms of iron in food: Heme iron is found in meat, poultry, and seafood, and non-heme iron is found primarily in plant-based sources.
Heme iron is more bioavailable, meaning that the body can absorb it more easily. Therefore, vegetarians and vegans may be more prone to iron deficiencies than meat-eaters. However, it is possible to get enough iron from a plant-based diet with sufficient planning.
Some of the best high-iron foods include:
- Lean meat (especially beef liver)
- Poultry (especially dark meat)
- Fish and seafood (oysters, salmon, tuna, etc.)
- Eggs (especially egg yolks)
- Wholegrain cereals (wheat, millet, oats, brown rice, etc.)
- Nuts and seeds (especially almonds and Brazil nuts)
- Dried fruit (prunes, raisin, apricots, etc.)
- Legumes (peas, beans, lentils, etc.)
- Leafy greens (broccoli, kale, collard greens, etc.)
- Fortified foods (bread, breakfast cereals, etc.)
Certain nutrients and medications can also affect how well the body absorbs iron. For example, vitamin C improves iron absorption. Therefore, it is a good idea to consume vitamin C-rich foods or drinks alongside iron-containing meals.
Conversely, calcium can interfere with iron absorption. So can certain plant chemicals, such as bran fiber, tannins, and phytic acid.
Therefore, it is advisable to avoid drinking tannin-rich beverages, including tea and coffee, at the same time as meals. Soaking, germinating, and cooking can reduce the phytic acid content of grains and legumes.
Antacids, proton pump inhibitors, and H2 receptor antagonists can block iron absorption and should not be taken at mealtimes.
Meanwhile, iron can reduce the effects of other drugs like levodopa, levothyroxine, and bisphosphonates. Therefore, individuals should leave a few hours between eating iron-containing foods and taking these medicines.
Iron-rich supplements come in many forms. The most common are ferrous sulfate, ferrous fumarate, and ferrous gluconate.
These iron salts have slightly different properties. For example, ferrous gluconate has a higher bioavailability than ferrous sulfate. However, it contains a lower level of elemental iron, meaning that higher doses are necessary.
Daily doses of elemental iron can vary from 65mg as a preventative measure to 200mg when treating severe deficiencies. However, it is essential not to take too much iron as that can cause its own problems.
Many supplements will have two numbers on their label. The higher number indicates the amount of iron salt in each dose, while the lower number refers to elemental iron. Follow the manufacturer’s dosage instructions or the guidance of a healthcare professional to avoid overdosing.
Side Effects of Iron Overdose
Iron toxicity is rare as the body can efficiently regulate its levels using a hormone called hepcidin. However, it is possible to take too much iron.
The recommended upper daily limit for adults and teens over 14 years is 45mg. Side effects of overconsumption include:
Very high doses (single doses over 60mg per kilogram of body weight) can cause multiple organ failure, convulsions, coma, and death.
Moreover, some people have an inherited condition called hemochromatosis. It causes iron to accumulate abnormally in the organs, potentially leading to liver cirrhosis, liver cancer, and heart disease. Therefore, people with hemochromatosis must be especially cautious and avoid consuming too much iron.
Final Thoughts on Iron
Iron is a common mineral and an essential nutrient in the human diet. Iron’s health benefits include oxygen transport, energy production, growth, development, and more. Therefore, iron deficiency can cause severe symptoms and requires medical intervention.
Most people can get enough iron to remain healthy from food. However, those at high risk of deficiency may benefit from taking a supplement. These individuals should seek advice from a healthcare professional and not exceed the maximum daily dose.