Iron is a nutrient that plays many important roles in our body. Low iron levels are common and can cause unpleasant symptoms such as fatigue, low concentration and frequent ailments.
However, iron deficiency is not always easy to detect, especially in its early stages.
Iron supplements are a great way to reverse a deficiency, especially if dietary changes alone do not bring significant benefits.
Symptoms of low iron levels
Low iron levels are common, especially in some subgroups of the population. If untreated, they may develop into a more severe condition known as iron deficiency anaemia (IDA).
IDA is a condition in which your blood does not contain enough healthy red blood cells and can carry oxygen.
The symptoms can be the following:
- lack of energy
- shortness of breath
- concentration difficulties
- ease to fall ill
- difficulty in regulating body temperature or often feeling cold
- pale skin
- hearing ringing, hissing or humming inside the head
- tongue sore or difficulty swallowing
- change in perception of flavours
- hair loss
- painful sores at the corners of the mouth
- spoon-shaped nails
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, consider discussing diagnostic testing options with your doctor to identify or rule out low iron or IDA levels.
Testing iron levels regularly can be a great way to identify and treat low iron levels before they potentially turn into IDA.
Keep in mind that these symptoms are usually more noticeable when low iron levels progress. Therefore, you may have low iron levels without experiencing any of these signs, especially in the early stages of the problem.
It is important to note that taking iron supplements when they are not needed, could harm your health in part because they typically contain high doses of iron that can cause digestive problems and reduce the absorption of other nutrients in the intestine.
Taking these supplements unnecessarily can also cause damage to cells and, sometimes, cause even very serious consequences. Negative side effects can occur in anyone but appear particularly fatal in children.
Therefore, before taking iron supplements, always talk to your doctor.
Iron: the right amount
It is interesting to note that the way your body metabolizes iron is unique, as it does not expel this mineral, but rather recycles and retains it. Therefore, taking too much or too little iron can be a serious problem.
Too much iron
Iron is concentrated in human blood. For this reason, people who receive regular blood transfusions, such as those in cancer therapy, may be at risk of taking too much iron. This condition is known as iron overload. It happens because your body cannot get rid of its iron reserves before receiving more from the blood transfusion.
Although iron is necessary, in excessive amounts it could be toxic and damage the liver, heart and other vital organs. However, iron overload is not a problem when your iron comes from the diet alone unless you have a condition such as a hemochromatosis, which causes increased iron absorption in the digestive tract. Keep in mind that the highest tolerable intake level (UL) - the highest amount you can safely consume - is 40-45 mg per day for iron, depending on gender and age.
Too little Iron
Pregnant women, infants, endurance athletes and teenage girls are at greater risk of iron deficiency.
Children who do not receive an adequate amount of iron can be slow to gain weight. They may also appear pale, tired, devoid of appetite, become ill more often, and be irritable. Iron deficiency can also lead to low concentration, short attention and negative effects on children’s school performance.
Not taking enough iron could also cause sideropenic anaemia, the most common nutritional deficiency in the world.
If you have this condition, your body doesn’t have enough iron to form new red blood cells. It is usually caused by a diet lacking in iron or chronic blood loss
How to take enough iron in your diet?
Heme iron is the richest and most efficiently absorbed type. It is more concentrated in crustaceans, offal, poultry and eggs.
Rich vegetarian sources of iron include chickpeas, quinoa, seeds, beans, fortified cereals and green leafy vegetables.
In addition, dark chocolate contains a surprising amount of iron, equal to 19% of the daily value (DV) per serving of 28 grams.
Match well food sources
What we eat along with iron-rich foods is very important. Properly match foods high in iron significant always associate them with foods rich in vitamin C such as fruits and vegetables, but also lemon squeezed into the water that is consumed during the meal. This is because vitamin C increases iron absorption.
On the contrary, accompanying foods high in iron with foods rich in calcium, such as drinking milk with a plate of eggs, inhibits the absorption of iron. Therefore, it is best to consume calcium-rich foods at a separate time.
If you feel you need to supplement your diet, commercial iron supplements provide iron in the form of ferrous fumarate, ferrous sulfate, and ferrous gluconate. These contain varying amounts of elemental iron.
Supplementation with iron can cause constipation and intestinal problems, so it is preferable to take iron from food whenever possible.
It is generally recommended that children or infants do not consume iron supplements and instead obtain iron from their diet.
Multivitamins typically provide 18 mg of iron or 100% of DV. Supplements containing only iron may contain about 360% of DV. Taking more than 45 mg of iron daily is associated with intestinal disorders and constipation in adults