What Is It
Needed throughout the body, iron is an essential part of hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying component of red blood cells. The mineral is also found in myoglobin, which supplies oxygen to the muscles, and is part of many enzymes and immune-system compounds. The body, which gets most of the iron it requires from foods, carefully monitors its iron status, absorbing more of the mineral when demand is high (during periods of rapid growth, such as pregnancy or childhood) and less when stores of it are adequate. Because the body loses iron when bleeding, menstruating women may often have low levels. Dieters, vegetarians, and endurance athletes may experience iron shortfalls as well.
What Does It Do
By helping the blood and muscles deliver oxygen, iron supplies energy to every cell in the body. Yet iron deficiency is surprisingly common in the United States. According to federal statistics, 9% of adolescent girls and 11% of women under age 50 are deficient in this mineral. Though it is very difficult to develop an iron deficiency from poor nutrition (iron is found in many foods), women with heavy menstrual periods and people with certain medical conditions may need supplements to prevent or correct the severe condition known as iron-deficiency anemia.
• Treats iron-deficiency anemia.
• Often needed during pregnancy; by women with heavy menstrual periods; or in other situations determined by your doctor.
Keeping your body well supplied with iron provides energy, helps your immune system function at its best, and gives your mind an edge. Studies show that even mild iron deficiency (well short of the levels commonly associated with anemia) can cause adults to have a short attention span and teens to do poorly in school.
How Much You Need
The RDA for iron in men of all ages and women over age 50 is 10 mg a day. For younger women, it's 15 mg daily (in pregnancy, 30 mg a day). To combat anemia, additional iron, either through diet or supplements is typically needed for a period of weeks or months.
If You Get Too Little: If you get too little iron in your diet or lose too much through heavy menstrual periods, stomach bleeding (commonly caused by arthritis drugs), or cancer, your body draws on its iron reserve. Initially, there are no symptoms, but as your iron supply dwindles, so does your body's ability to produce healthy red blood cells. The result is iron-deficiency anemia, marked by weakness, fatigue, paleness, breathlessness, palpitations, and increased susceptibility to infection.
If You Get Too Much: Some studies link too much iron to an increased risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease and colon cancer. Excess iron can be particularly dangerous in adults with a genetic tendency to overabsorb it (hemochromatosis), and in children who are especially susceptible to iron overdose.
How To Take It
Dosage: Iron supplements should be taken only under your doctors supervision; self-treatment can be dangerous. Anemia requires a careful diagnosis and treatment to correct the underlying cause. When a doctor recommends it, iron is typically taken in a form called ferrous salts— usually ferrous sulfate, ferrous fumarate, or ferrous gluconate. A typical prescribed dose provides about 30 mg of iron one to three times daily. Most men and postmenopausal women do not need iron supplements and should make sure iron is not included in their daily multivitamin.
Guidelines For Use: Iron is best absorbed when taken on an empty stomach. However, if iron upsets your stomach, have it with meals, preferably with a small amount of meat and a food or drink rich in vitamin C, such as broccoli or orange juice, to help boost the amount of iron your body absorbs. Never take iron for more than six months without having your blood iron levels rechecked by your doctor.
Iron-rich food include liver, beef, and lamb. Clams, oysters, and mussels also contain iron. Vegetarians can get plenty of iron from beans and peas, leafy greens, dried fruits (apricots, raisins), seeds (pumpkin, squash, sunflower), and fortified breakfast cereals. Brewer's yeast, kelp, blackstrap molasses, and wheat bran are also exceptionally good sources. Cooking tomatoes or other acidic foods in a cast-iron pot adds iron to meals as well; a healthful amount leaches out of the cookware into the food.
• Never take an iron supplement unless you are following your doctor's recommendation. More than 1 million Americans have an inherited disease called hemochromatosis, which causes them to absorb to much iron, and most don't even know it. (Early symptoms include fatigue and aching joints.)
• Taking iron on your own could also mask a cause of anemia, such as a bleeding ulcer, and prevent your doctor from making an early, lifesaving diagnosis.
Facts and Tips
• Keep all supplements containing iron out of reach of children. Just five high-potency iron pills can kill a small child.
• Iron supplements can interfere with antibiotics and other medications. Be sure to tell your doctor about any supplements you are taking in addition to your regular medications.
• Women who are even slightly deficient in iron feel cold sooner than women with adequate blood levels of iron. For them, taking iron supplements is truly heart-warming.
• One of the most common forms of iron supplement (ferrous sulfate) is inexpensive, but it can cause constipation and stomach upset. Other forms, such as ferrous fumarate or ferrous gluconate, may be easier to tolerate. Iron-rich herbal tonics (sold in health-food stores) may be even gentler.
• Check the labels on any multivitamin and mineral supplements you take to see if you're getting extra iron. If you're not at risk for anemia, you probably don't need it, and it could be hazardous.