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Whether due to your health conditions or the life stage you are in – say anemia or pregnancy – you may have been advised to increase your iron intake. Though iron is a nutrient essential for the functioning of your body, over 30 percent of the global population suffers from iron deficiency. So, what exactly does iron do and why do you need it?
- About 70% of the iron in your body is found as hemoglobin in blood cells and as myoglobin in muscles cells.
- About 25% of the iron in your body is stored as ferritin in bone marrow, liver, and spleen. Some ferritin is also found circulating in blood. Men can store enough iron for 3 years, while women can store enough for just 6 months.
- About 6% of the iron in your body is found in essential enzymes.[ref]Hemoglobin and Functions of Iron. University of California, San Francisco.[/ref]
1. Helps Produce Red Blood Cells
The most well-documented role of iron in the body is in the production of red blood cells (RBCs). In fact, blood owes its red hue to iron. Once iron enters your body, it’s transported to the bone marrow where it helps produce hemoglobin, a component of red blood cells. RBC has a life span of about 120 days after which it breaks down and releases the iron, which is then recycled into use. But the body also loses 1–2 mg iron daily through the shedding of skin cells and cells inside the gastrointestinal tract skin cell or minor blood loss. Women lose more through menstruation.[ref]The Interaction of Iron and Erythropoietin. Harvard University.[/ref] [ref]Waldvogel-Abramowski, Sophie, Gérard Waeber, Christoph Gassner, Andreas Buser, Beat M. Frey, Bernard Favrat, and Jean-Daniel Tissot. “Physiology of iron metabolism.” Transfusion Medicine and Hemotherapy 41, no. 3 (2014): 213-221.[/ref]
Young female athletes may have lower hemoglobin than their sedentary counterparts, especially if they have dietary restrictions. They may need iron supplements to stay healthy and keep up their athletic performance.[ref]Beard, John, and Brian Tobin. “Iron status and exercise.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 72, no. 2 (2000): 594s-597s.[/ref]
When the iron stores in the body go chronically low, hemoglobin level reduces, eventually leading to iron deficiency anemia. The anemia causes symptoms like weakness, fatigue, shortness of breath, an increased heart rate, headaches, and dizziness. For a healthy RBC count, it’s essential that you eat iron-rich foods and prevent iron-deficiency anemia.
2. Transports Oxygen
Hemoglobin, the iron-containing protein in red blood cells, is in charge of transporting oxygen from the lungs to different parts of the body. Lack of iron reduces the level of hemoglobin, which in turn deprives vital organs and body parts of oxygen, eventually causing cell death.[ref]The Chemistry of Hemoglobin and Myoglobin. Purdue University.[/ref] This is why patients of iron deficiency anemia suffer from shortness of breath, fatigue, and spells of dizziness.
3. Helps In Muscle Function
Iron is also essential for the production of a protein called myoglobin. Myoglobin binds to the oxygen in your muscle cells and stores it for future use. It also transports oxygen within the muscle tissue and helps in the metabolic processes required for muscle contraction.[ref]The Chemistry of Hemoglobin and Myoglobin. Purdue University.[/ref] So a lack of iron will manifest as muscle weakness and pain caused by a low supply of oxygen and nutrients.
4. Helps In Metabolism
You may think that iron has no role to play in controlling your metabolism. But lack of iron makes cells resistant to insulin and prevents the conversion of glucose into energy. This signals the body that there might be a lack of insulin. So the body increases insulin production. Now both high insulin and lack of blood sugar conversion contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease risk. In fact, in patients of heart failure, iron deficiency is considered a fatal risk factor.[ref]Makubi, Abel, and David J. Roberts. “Investigation and treatment for iron deficiency in heart failure: the unmet need in Lower and Middle Income Countries.” British journal of haematology (2017).[/ref]
About 6% of the iron in your body is found in essential enzymes, that are required for respiration, metabolism of energy, production of collagen and some neurotransmitters, and immune function.[ref]Hemoglobin and Functions of Iron. University of California, San Francisco.[/ref]
5. Helps In Immunity
To keep diseases at bay and fight cell-damaging free radicals, your immune system needs the help of antioxidants like catalase and peroxidase. These antioxidants depend heavily on iron supply to work effectively. If you don’t have enough in iron in your body, your immunity is compromised and you become prone to infections. This is a complication of iron deficiency anemia.
However, an iron overload can also make you prone to infections. In tropical countries, iron supplementation has been seen to increase incidences of malaria and tuberculosis. Excess iron can make certain pathogenic microbes more virulent.[ref]Murray MJ, Murray AB, Murray MB, et al. The adverse effect of iron repletion on the course of certain infections. Br Med J. 1978;2:1113–1115[/ref] [ref]Oppenheimer, Stephen J. “Iron and its relation to immunity and infectious disease.” The Journal of nutrition 131, no. 2 (2001): 616S-635S.[/ref]
Recent research suggests that any problem in the homeostasis of iron – that is any defect in maintaining appropriate levels of iron in the body – can adversely affect immunity.[ref]Cherayil, Bobby J. “Iron and immunity: immunological consequences of iron deficiency and overload.” Archivum immunologiae et therapiae experimentalis 58, no. 6 (2010): 407-415.[/ref]
6. Helps Prevent Brain Diseases
The uptake of iron in the brain is tightly regulated. But if there’s a malfunction in the iron regulatory system (chiefly governed by a hormone called hepcidin), resulting in a deficiency or an excess of iron in the brain, several problems can arise.
Since your brain requires slightly more oxygen than other parts of the body to work optimally, lack of iron can reduce oxygen supply to the brain, gradually leading to cell death.[ref]Meneghini, Rogerio. “Iron homeostasis, oxidative stress, and DNA damage.”Free Radical Biology and Medicine 23.5 (1997): 783-792.[/ref] Moreover, iron is required to synthesize and maintain a protective sheath called myelin sheath around certain nerve cells. Myelinated cells are responsible for fast transmission of nerve impulses or signals – think of nerves that conduct information about balance.
In adults, the lack of iron often manifests as neurological symptoms like brain fog or pica.[ref]Todorich, Bozho, et al. “Oligodendrocytes and myelination: the role of iron.”Glia 57.5 (2009): 467-478.[/ref]
Excess iron in the brain is also risky. Iron increases oxidation and the brain is particularly vulnerable to oxidative damage. This can in turn lead to diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Lou Gehrig’s disease.[ref]Iron. Oregon State University.[/ref]
7. Helps Boost Brain Function In Babies
Lack of iron when one is young often leads to slow development of brain faculties, language, IQ, and motor skills and is also linked with a tendency toward anxiety, depression, and ADHD.[ref]Hare, Dominic J., Scott Ayton, Ashley I. Bush, and Peng Lei. “A delicate balance: iron metabolism and diseases of the brain.” Frontiers in aging neuroscience 5 (2013): 34.[/ref] In fact, low levels of iron in newborns can impair their learning ability. Unfortunately, long-term iron supplementation later on may not reverse the condition.[ref] [ref]Youdim, Moussa BH. “Brain iron deficiency and excess; cognitive impairment and neurodegenration with involvement of striatum and hippocampus.” Neurotoxicity research 14, no. 1 (2008): 45-56.[/ref]
8. Is Essential For The Skin And Hair
Since a minute amount of iron is lost daily through it, the skin plays a role in maintaining the iron homeostasis. Moreover, iron helps form collagen, a building block of the skin. A deficiency of iron causes the skin to lose its natural color and hair to fall out due to the lack of hemoglobin.
Adult Men Need 8 Mg Iron A Day, Women Need 18 Mg During Their Fertile Years
Having noted how vital iron is for our survival, let’s find out how much iron we need daily. The amount of iron required varies with age and gender. Menstruating women obviously need more since they lose more iron every month. Infants also need more iron for development of the brain and for other body functions.[ref]Iron. National Institutes of Health.[/ref]
Here is the recommended daily allowance for iron.
|Birth to 6 months||0.27 mg||0.27 mg|
|7–12 months||11 mg||11 mg|
|1–3 years||7 mg||7 mg|
|4–8 years||10 mg||10 mg|
|9–13 years||8 mg||8 mg|
|14–18 years||11 mg||15 mg|
|19–50 years||8 mg||18 mg|
|51+ years||8 mg||8 mg|
Pregnant Women Have A Higher Risk Of Deficiency
A pregnant woman needs 27 mg, while a lactating woman needs 11 mg iron per day.
Pregnant women, children, and the elderly are more prone to iron deficiency than others. This is because, during pregnancy, iron is used extensively in forming vital aspects of the fetus. For growing children, the demand for iron may increase over time but the iron in the diet, in most cases, does not increase. Elderly men/women naturally lose iron through metabolism and may require supplements to prevent deficiency. This loss is natural. Iron depletes with age and the reduced absorption power of the digestive tract.
Vegetarians And Vegans Need More Iron
Did you know tea antioxidants block the absorption of non-heme iron in your body? So drink tea between your meals and add some lemon juice to your tea as vitamin C helps in the absorption of iron.[ref]Zijp, Itske M., Onno Korver, and Lilian BM Tijburg. “Effect of tea and other dietary factors on iron absorption.” Critical reviews in food science and nutrition 40, no. 5 (2000): 371-398.[/ref]
Iron in our diet comes from two sources: animal sources or heme iron, and plant sources or nonheme iron. Since heme iron is better absorbed by the body, a vegetarian or vegan would need almost twice the daily recommended amount of iron.[ref]Food Sources of Iron. Dieticians of Canada.[/ref]
Include iron-rich foods like spinach, beans, dry fruits, broccoli, wheat germ, prunes, and peaches to your daily diet. Consume a fair amount of meat and seafood as well. Here’s a list of the top 10 iron-rich foods.
|Food||Quantity Of Iron (in mg)||Standard Serving Size|
|Liver, pork, cooked||13.4||75 g (2 ½ oz)|
|Liver (chicken, turkey, lamb), cooked||6.2–9.7||75 g (2 ½ oz)|
|Kidney, lamb, cooked||9.3||75 g (2 ½ oz)|
|Octopus, cooked||7.2||75 g (2 ½ oz)|
|Soybeans, mature, cooked||6.5||175 mL (¾ cup)|
|Cream of wheat, all types, cooked||5.7–5.8||175 mL (¾ cup)|
|Liver, beef ,cooked||4.9||75 g (2 ½ oz)|
|Lentils, cooked||4.1–4.9||175 mL (¾ cup)|
|Oatmeal, instant, cooked||4.5–6.6||175 mL (¾ cup)|
|Cereal, dry, all types||4.0–4.3||30 g|
Iron Deficiency Has Several Causes And Wide-Ranging Symptoms
Lack of iron-rich foods as part of your daily diet and low iron absorption are the most common reasons for a deficiency. Iron deficiency can also happen due to loss of excess blood (such as during heavy menstruation), excessive blood donation, fibroids, and digestive tract infection or disease. Certain medications can also restrict iron absorption or cause depletion.
Deficiency of iron can cause chronic fatigue, weakness, dizziness, inability to concentrate, headaches, depression, sore tongue, increased sensitivity to cold, shortness of breath, and restless leg syndrome.
Excess Iron Too May Cause Iron Toxicity
While iron is healthy for the body, excess iron can do more harm than good and lead to a condition called iron toxicity. Iron ions cause oxidative stress through the formation of oxygen free radicals. These free radicals can oxidize lipids in cell membranes, leading to cell death. This type of iron-induced oxidation has been linked to age-related memory diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Iron toxicity is rare because the body uses it in one way or another. However, regulate your iron intake if you suffer from hemochromatosis – a genetically inherited disease that can cause iron to accumulate to toxic levels in the body. Without treatment, this disease can lead to problems like liver cancer, liver cirrhosis, and heart disease.
If you have an iron deficiency, you might want to consider taking supplements. However, consult your doctor before opting for any kind of supplement as excess iron, as discussed, can be harmful.