The importance of iron in our health

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Iron is one of the most important trace elements of the body, as it is necessary for growth and development. Although the necessity of iron is quite known, we do not recognize its value in our health. What is iron exactly, how iron supplements help to deal with anemia and how much iron do we need every day?

Iron properties

Iron participates in:

  • the formation of red blood cells and hemoglobin
  • oxygen transfer
  • normal cellular metabolism and energy production
  • reducing fatigue and exhaustion

One of the most important properties of iron is its involvement in the oxygenation of tissues and organs. In particular, it is used for the synthesis of hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells that carries oxygen molecules from the lungs throughout the body, and myoglobin, a protein that provides oxygen to the muscles. It also participates in the production of certain hormones as well as in the production of connective tissue.

Food sources of iron

Iron is naturally found in many foods. It is available in two forms, heme iron, which is mainly found in meat and non-heme iron found in plants and food enriched with iron. Meat, seafood and poultry have both heme and non-heme iron. With the advancement of food technology, it is possible to enrich many foods with iron. Bioavailability and absorption of heme iron are much greater. For better absorption of iron derived from plant sources, it is recommended to consume it with meat or foods rich in vitamin C, like citrus fruits, peppers, broccoli, strawberries, etc. Good sources of iron are:

  • Red meat, seafood, poultry and eggs
  • Enriched in iron breakfast cereals and bread
  • White beans, lentils, spinach and peas
  • Nuts and some dried fruits

How much iron do we need?

The amount of iron we need every day depends on the age, gender and diet that each person adopts (eg. vegetarianism). Adult men and women, respectively, need 8 mg and 18 mg daily, while the iron needs during pregnancy are significantly increased up to 27 mg per day. People who do not eat meat, poultry or seafood need almost to double their daily iron intake through diet, as the body does not absorb non-heme iron to the same extent as heme iron. Despite the abundance of iron in food, iron deficiency is not particularly rare. At a higher risk for iron deficiency are:

  • girls in adolescence with increased blood flow during menstruation
  • pregnant women and adolescents
  • premature infants or infants with low birth weight
  • frequent blood donors or people with frequent bleedings
  • people with cancer, gastrointestinal disorders (GI) or heart failure

Iron deficiency, what are the consequences?

In short term, reduced iron intake does not cause any obvious symptoms. The body has the ability to store the iron which is not used in the muscle, liver, spleen, and bone marrow to a protein called ferritin. However, if iron intake continues to be reduced, then iron deficiency occurs, which is called anemia. In anemia, red blood cells become smaller as they contain less hemoglobin. As a result, blood transfers less oxygen throughout the body. Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include fatigue, lack of energy, poor gastrointestinal function, poor memory and concentration, hair loss, nail brittleness, decreased immunization and insufficient body temperature control. As a result, the person becomes vulnerable to microbial infections. Infants and children with anemia due to iron deficiency may develop learning difficulties.

What types of iron supplements are available?

In food supplements, iron is available in pills, effervescent tablets and syrups. The most common forms are iron are ferrous sulphate, ferrous gluconate and ferric citrate. The iron forms with the greatest bioavailability and better absorption are ferrous sulphate and ferrous gluconate. Calcium can affect the absorption of iron, so it is recommended that calcium and iron supplements should be taken at different times of the day. The recommended daily dose of iron is 14 to 18 mg, depending on the age of the individual.

Interactions and side effects

Iron can be harmful if it is taken in high doses, so caution is needed, especially in children. Supplemental iron in doses greater than 20 mg/kg may lead to gastrointestinal disturbances, constipation or diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain and vomiting and reduces zinc absorption. Iron supplements can interact or affect the absorption and action of certain drugs. People taking calcium supplements or medication for treating Parkinson’s disease, hypothyroidism or for reducing stomach acidity should first consult their physician.


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