Should I Take Iron Supplements? Assessing Benefits & Side Effects
Should I Take Iron Supplements? Assessing Benefits & Side Effects
If you’re feeling drained, there’s a good chance you’re deficient in iron.
Iron deficiency is extremely common. Yet half of the people suffering from anaemia are undiagnosed. Symptoms include brain fog, fatigue, irritability and poor performance overall.
There are two types of iron: Heme and non-heme. Heme iron comes from eating animal products while non-heme iron comes from eating plants. Most supplements are made from heme iron.
There are several factors that can lead to iron deficiency, such as vitamin C deficiency, drinking excessive alcohol or tea, medication, frequent blood donation and excess calcium.
In developing countries, gut parasites can lead to blood loss and anaemia.
There’s a wide range of factors to consider when deciding whether you should take iron supplements. This article will explore different situations where iron supplements might be necessary.
Who Should Take Iron Supplements?
Iron is essential for the creation of red blood cells that carry oxygen. This, in turn, helps the body to oxygenate the vital organs.
Women require significant amounts of iron, especially during pregnancy, while breastfeeding and menstruation.
People with heavy menstrual bleeding (menorrhagia) are at high risk for developing iron deficiency and as such should consider iron supplementation.
Anaemia is a massive problem worldwide. Around 25% of the world’s population is thought to be anaemic .
Iron is concentrated in the blood and most people should be able to consume enough iron by eating a healthy balanced diet.
The bioavailability of non-heme (plant-based) iron is between 2-20 per cent. The wide disparity in iron absorption is due to factors such as intake of vitamin C, lifestyle choices, gender and age.
Iron-rich foods include nuts, dried fruit, beans and legumes, chia seeds, linseed, hemp seeds, kale, quinoa, soya bean flour, turkey, and various organ meats (like liver).
Who Should NOT Take Iron Supplements?
Everyone’s body is unique, therefore there are some cases where iron supplementation might be a bad idea.
One is people who suffer from hemochromatosis (iron overload). This is a genetic condition where the body stores too much iron. This can cause damage to the heart, liver and pancreas.
If you have any gut disorders or constipation, you might also want to speak with your doctor before taking iron supplements. Too much iron can feed the “bad bacteria” in the gut, and iron supplements can also cause constipation. Therefore, if you suffer from constipation then you might want to think of dietary approaches to increase iron levels.
The Benefits of Taking Iron Supplements
Iron is essential for the body to function properly. The right amount of iron can boost athletic performance, and increase energy levels.
Iron is also necessary for the immune system to function properly. As such, if you’re iron deficient, taking supplements could boost your immune system .
Additionally, iron is required for the regulation of body temperature, and for this reason, additional iron (when needed) could help in weather extremities.
Interestingly, many people who have iron deficiency never find out that it is the root cause of their ailments. Low iron levels can easily go unnoticed and be dismissed as normal ageing, laziness or some other chronic condition .
Iron is required in higher doses when pregnant and can help the development of a healthy baby. Iron helps oxygen and other nutrients cross the placenta, meaning that an infant will be healthier both mentally and physically if the mother ensures adequate intake of iron during the course of her pregnancy.
When and How to Take Iron Supplements
If you’re taking iron supplements it’s good to take them on an empty stomach – first thing in the morning would be preferable, especially if you have an hour or more spare before breakfast.
Iron supplements are particularly important for those who menstruate. Tea, coffee and alcohol can reduce the body's ability to absorb iron, while a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice can increase the amount of iron the body can use.
In the UK, the recommended daily dose of iron is 8.7mg per day or 14.8mg per day for those who menstruate.
To make iron more bioavailable (easy for the body to absorb), you need adequate amounts of vitamin C. Eating foods rich in vitamin C will help your body utilise iron, as there’s a clear link between vitamin C deficiency and iron deficiency.
The ability to make use of iron (especially non-heme iron) is directly proportional to the amount of vitamin C consumed at the same time. Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) bonds with ferric iron to facilitate the absorption of non-heme iron.
Vitamin C rich foods include broccoli, strawberries, grapefruit, pineapple, cabbage, kiwi fruit and oranges. Iron should be consumed daily .
Possible Iron Supplement Side Effects
If you consume too much iron in the form of supplements, you can experience side effects. These can be moderate to severe and even fatal in some people.
strong>Doses over 20mg per day can produce side effects, especially in children, or people who are lean.
Taking too many iron supplements irritates your gut and can cause the following side effects if the dose is too high:
- Blood in stool or vomit
- Stomach pain
Children in particular should not take too much iron. Iron poisoning can occur in young children if they get their little hands on iron tablets. Amounts exceeding 20mg/kg can be fatal, depending on the weight of the infant or child.
The ability to make use of iron (especially non-heme iron) is proportional to the amount of vitamin C consumed. Ascorbic acid bonds with ferric iron to facilitate the absorption of non-heme iron.
In all honesty, there aren’t many nutritional supplements that a doctor will prescribe. Vitamin D, folate, and iron are among the few that are routinely prescribed. That’s because iron is vital for bodily functions.
Those who menstruate, children, pregnant women and athletes require more iron and as such, female athletes are some of the most vulnerable groups for iron deficiency.
Written by best-selling author and integrative nutrition health coach Rowanna Watson, who has a passion for natural health. Rowanna is an expert in all areas of holistic health, plant-based nutrition, detoxification and personal development.
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