Are you getting too little iron

- or too much?

Are you getting too little ironLack of iron is the most widespread nutrient deficiency in the world and the most common cause of anemia. Iron deficiency causes fatigue, dizziness, paleness, impaired immunity, hair loss, and a host of other symptoms. It can cause stunted growth and learning difficulty in children. Some of the things that can cause iron deficiency are heavy menstrual bleeding, pregnancy, vegetarian/vegan diets, lack of vitamin C, antacids, inflammatory bowel diseases, and celiac disease. Excess iron, on the other hand, can also spell trouble by generating harmful free radicals that attack our cells. So, it is important not to get too little or too much iron – but just the right amount. In the following, you can read more about iron and its importance for our health.

Iron is what gives blood its red color. It binds oxygen in the hemoglobin of red blood cells, which carries oxygen to all our cells. Most of our iron is stored in red blood cells and in muscle tissue. A third of our iron is stored in the liver, the spleen, and our red bone marrow. A smaller quantity is used in enzymes that are important for neurotransmitters and for the white blood cells that help fight infections.
Iron is especially important for our energy turnover, vitality, growth, learning ability, immune defense, cold resistance, hair, nails, and healthy color. You can lack iron without being anemic, which is why an iron deficiency can have a negative effect on the entire body. Iron deficiency is decidedly dangerous if your blood percentage drops to a point where it causes life-threatening symptoms in the brain or heart. Iron deficiency also becomes dangerous if it covers over bleeding from a malicious tumor.

Common signs and symptoms of being iron-deficient

  • Anemia
  • Tiredness and paleness
  • Dizziness or heart palpitations
  • Breathing difficulty in connection with physical activity
  • Headaches
  • Tinnitus
  • Impaired immunity
  • Disturbances in hair and nail growth
  • Learning difficulty in children

Causes of iron deficiency

Roughly speaking, iron deficiency is a result of blood loss, unhealthy diets, poor nutrient uptake, and an increased need for iron for different reasons. In the case of an iron deficiency, one should pay careful attention to the listed causes. Also, it is vital to eat a diet with plenty of iron and check that supplements are absorbed properly.

  • Blood loss due to heavy menstrual bleeding, other types of bleeding, or blood donation
  • Pregnancy and growth
  • Endurance sport and hard physical labor
  • Unhealthy diets
  • Vegetarian/vegan diets
  • Inflammatory bowel disorders and gluten intolerance (including celiac disease)
  • Low stomach acid or the use of antacids that inhibit iron uptake
  • Excessive consumption of coffee and tea (tannic acid binds to iron)
  • Long-term use of medical drugs like acetylsalicylic acid, tetracyclines, anti-rheumatic drugs (NSAID), and disulfiram for alcoholism

Iron sources and absorption

Some of the good sources of iron are liver, meat, fish, pumpkin seeds and other seeds, beans, stinging nettle, spinach, broccoli, apricot, whole grain and red beet.
Iron from animal sources (heme iron) is absorbed better in the body than iron from vegetable sources (non-heme iron). Vitamin C increases the body’s uptake of iron.
Optimal uptake of iron requires sufficient amounts of stomach acid. It is a problem that low stomach acid can cause the same symptoms as excess stomach acid, because many people are diagnosed incorrectly and advised to take antacids that decrease the iron uptake additionally.

Iron requirement

The recommended daily dose for iron varies a lot and depends on gender, age, and several other factors. Infants are born with iron deposits that cover their need for the nutrient during the first six months of their life. After that, they must get iron from their diet.

  • Children aged 2-5 years: 8 mg
  • Children aged 6-9 years: 9 mg
  • Children and adolescents aged 10-13 years: 11 mg
  • Men and non-menstruating women: 9 mg
  • Menstruating women: 12-18 mg

Pregnant women: It is advised that take an iron supplement from their 10th week of pregnancy, preferably as part of a special prenatal multivitamin. The dose may vary from 27-50 mg because 80 percent of pregnant women do not suffer from iron deficiency.

Iron status, supplementation, and time-consuming treatment

If an iron deficiency is suspected you are advised to have your iron levels measured. Only take an iron supplement if the physician recommends it.
There is a natural limit to how much iron the body can absorb without being poisoned, so an iron deficiency treatment can easily last 3-6 months. Many people, including children, may feel an improvement after a short while, however.
Make sure to tell your doctor if you are taking medicine because certain medical drugs impair the uptake of iron.
Iron supplements taken in combination with vitamin C supplements are absorbed and utilized better. Don’t take iron together with dairy products, calcium supplements, or medical drugs that impair the iron uptake. Wait at least 3-4 hours.

  • Around 20% of menstruating women are iron-deficient, and 2-3 % have iron deficiency anemia
  • Around 10% of post-menopausal women are at the low end of the scale with regard to iron intake
  • More than 75% of men get more than the recommended amount of iron

NOTE: Avoid getting too much iron and make sure to get your antioxidants

It is important not to get too much iron because this mineral catalyzes the production of hydroxy radicals, a type of extremely aggressive free radicals that attack and destroy our cells and tissues. A high iron take may increase your risk of atherosclerosis, blood clots, and cancer. If you are not iron-deficient you should avoid taking iron in doses that are higher than what you get from a normal multivitamin pill. In fact, some vitamin pills on the market do not contain iron for the very same reason.
Take iron in the right amounts and preferably in combination with neutralizing antioxidants from a balanced diet or from supplements. Excess iron from supplementation may cause:

  • Stomach pain
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting

References:

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Else Molander. Anbefalinger vedr. vegansk kost. Fødevarestyrelsen. Januar 2019
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Ulla Gjeset Schølberg. Veganere mangler vitaminer og mineraler. Videnskab.dk 2016

Yoon Moberg. Får du nok jern? Det Natur- og Biovidenskabelige Fakultet.

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