What Is It?
Iron, a trace Mineral, supplies energy to every cell in the body. It is a key component of Hemoglobin, the blood’s oxygen-carrying pigment. Iron is also found in myoglobin, which supplies oxygen to muscles, and in compounds that keep the immune system strong. This mineral is critical to sharp mental functioning. Even slight deficiencies in iron can shorten attention span and make concentration difficult.
Normally, the body gets sufficient amounts of iron from the foods you eat. It manages to self-regulate itself, storing amounts you will need by automatically absorbing more iron when the need is high, and less when levels are adequate. Nonetheless, iron deficiency is still a significant public health problem. It can occur during periods of rapid growth–infancy, adolescence, and pregnancy–which increase the body’s demand for this mineral. In addition, women who menstruate heavily tend to have lower iron levels.
A chronically iron-poor diet or any condition characterized by prolonged bleeding (even of small amounts), such as ulcers, hemorrhoids, and rectal polyps, can lead to iron-deficiency anemia. Many people develop this type of anemia, for instance, as a consequence of an NSAID-related ulcer, or one caused by months or years of regularly taking aspirin, ibuprofen, or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).
Government statistics indicate that 11% of women under age 50 and 9% of adolescents are iron-deficient. Dieters, some vegetarians, and endurance athletes may also develop iron deficiency due to the unique demands on their bodies.
If iron-deficiency anemia develops, the body has to struggle to absorb sufficient amounts of oxygen. This is the most common type of anemia. At its most severe, however, or in the presence of certain other debilitating illnesses, iron-deficiency anemia can be life-threatening. Thankfully, it is relatively easy to treat.
If your doctor has diagnosed an iron deficiency, then iron supplements can help.
Specifically, iron may help to:
Correct iron-deficiency anemia. When iron stores are too low, the lack of oxygen produces debilitating fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath. Iron supplementation can correct the condition. (The underlying causes of bleeding should be medically treated as well, of course.) Bear in mind that a wide range of other medical conditions and other nutritional deficiencies, such as a shortage of folic acid, might also cause these symptoms. So never take iron supplements without medical advice.
–To boost the amount of iron your body absorbs, take the supplement with small amounts of meat or with foods and drinks rich in Vitamin C, such as broccoli or orange juice. For the same reasons, it’s also smart to take an iron supplement along with your daily multivitamin. Vitamin A and the trace mineral molybdenum also aid iron absorption.
–Have your doctor test your blood levels in a month or two; never take iron for more than six months without retesting, so that iron overload can be avoided.
For iron deficiency anemia, ask your doctor about the most appropriate dose for your needs.
Guidelines for Use
Take iron supplements with meals to minimize the chance of stomach upset. Taking the supplement with traditional breakfast foods may not be the best choice, however; even though vitamin C enhances iron absorption, coffee can interfere with it. Soy Protein isolates, often used in fruit “smoothies,” can also reduce iron absorption.
Calcium as well as large doses of chromium can interfere with iron absorption, so take these supplements at least two hours apart from iron.
Iron supplements can interfere with the action of a number of medications, including thyroid Hormone drugs, statins (to lower cholesterol), certain antibiotics, and various Parkinson’s disease drugs. So be sure to tell your doctor about any supplements you are taking in addition to your regular medications.
Possible Side Effects
Iron supplements can cause stools to become dark green or black in color; this is caused by any unabsorbed iron and is harmless.
Doses of iron higher than the tolerable upper daily intake level (UL) of 45 mg can cause nausea, vomiting, and constipation. Very high doses can be fatal. As important as iron is to a healthy body, too much is not a good thing, either. You should only take supplemental iron if a blood test identifies a true deficiency. In an estimated one million Americans, an inherited (and often undetected) disorder called hemachromatosis is present, in which too much iron is absorbed. Iron overload such as this can contribute to health problems such as heart disease. Keep iron-containing supplements out of the reach of children. As few as five high-potency iron tablets can be fatal for a small child. Check the labels of any multivitamin and mineral supplements you take, and add up the amounts to be sure you’re not accumulating too much iron in your total daily intake.
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