What is Iron?
Iron is an important that is involved in various bodily functions, including the transport of oxygen in the blood. This is essential for providing energy for daily life. Good sources of iron include and iron-fortified breakfast cereals. Iron is lost from the body through , shedding intestinal cells, and blood loss.
About one third of the world’s population is iron deficient. are at greater risk than men and postmenopausal women of iron deficiency.
Some of the roles of iron in the body include
- Oxygen transport – red blood cells contain hemoglobin, a complex protein that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Haemoglobin is partly made from iron, and accounts for about two thirds of the body’s iron.
- Myoglobin – a special protein that helps store oxygen in muscle cells. Myoglobin contains iron and is responsible for the red color of muscle.
- Enzymes – many enzymes throughout the body contain iron, including those involved in energy production. Enzymes are catalysts (increase the rate of chemical reaction) that drive many cell functions.
- – proper functioning of the immune system relies, in part, on sufficient iron. The immune system helps us fight infection.
What causes iron levels to drop?
- Not getting enough iron in your diet- There are many reasons why someone’s dietary intake of iron could be too low, for example a poorly balanced vegetarian diet, chronic fad dieting or having limited access to a wide range of fresh foods.
- Blood loss- Iron deficiency easily occurs in situations of chronic (ongoing) blood loss. Common causes include heavy menstrual periods, regular blood donation, regular , other chronic conditions that involve bleeding (such as peptic ulcers, polyps or cancers in the large intestine), and certain medications, particularly aspirin.
- Increased need for iron- if you are pregnant or breastfeeding your body needs more iron. If this increased need isn’t met, iron deficiency can quickly occur.
- Exercise- athletes are prone to iron deficiency because regular exercise increases the body’s need for iron in several ways. For example, hard training promotes red blood cell production (which requires iron), and iron is lost through sweating.
- Inability to absorb iron- healthy adults absorb about 10 to 15% of dietary iron, but some people’s bodies are unable to absorb or use iron from food.
Major risk factors for the development of iron deficiency in children include:
- prematurity and low birth weight
- exclusive breastfeeding beyond 6 months (not introducing solids)
- high intake of cow’s milk in young children less than 2 years of age
- low or no meat intake
- vegetarian and vegan eating
- poor diet in the second year of life
- possible gastrointestinal diseases
Babies, children and teenagers undergo rapid growth spurts, which increase their need for iron.
- Babies less than 6 months old- newborns receive their iron stores in the uterus (womb), which means the mother’s diet during pregnancy is very important. Low birth weight or premature babies are at increased risk of iron deficiency and will likely need iron supplements (under medical supervision only).
- Babies aged 6 months to one year- a baby’s iron stores run low in the second half of their first year. Iron deficiency can result if their diet doesn’t include enough iron-rich solid food. At around 6 months, 2 servings a day of plain, iron-fortified infant cereal mixed with breastmilk or infant formula can start to be given. Plain pureed meats can soon be offered with other solids, once your baby is used to the cereal. Late introduction of solids into the baby’s diet is a common cause of iron deficiency in this age group.
- Children aged one to 5 years- breastmilk contains a small amount of iron, but prolonged breastfeeding can lead to iron deficiency, especially if breastmilk replaces solid foods in the diet. Low-iron milks such as cow’s milk, goat’s milk and soymilk should not be given until 12 months of age. Children who drink milk in preference to eating solid foods are in danger of iron deficiency.
- Teenagers- adolescent girls are at risk because of a number of factors, including growth spurts at puberty, iron loss through menstruation and risk of under-nutrition due to fad dieting that restricts eating.
- In general- gastrointestinal disorders, such as coeliac disease, are a rare but possible cause of anemia in children.
How do you fix low iron?
Treatment for iron deficiency anemia involves taking iron supplements to boost the low levels of iron in your body. This is usually effective, and the condition rarely causes long-term problems. You’ll need to be monitored every few months to check that the treatment is working and your iron levels have returned to normal. The underlying cause will need to be treated so you don’t get anemia again. Increasing the amount of iron in your diet may also be recommended. Good nutritional sources of iron include:
dark-green leafy vegetables, such as watercress and curly kale
iron-fortified cereals or bread
pulses and beans
nuts and seeds
meat, fish and tofu
dried fruit, such as dried apricots, prunes and raisins
- tea and coffee
- calcium – found in dairy products, such as milk
- antacids and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) – medications used to relieve indigestion
- wholegrain cereals – although wholegrains are a good source of iron themselves, they contain phytic acid, which can stop your body absorbing iron from other foods and pills
Is Taking an Iron Supplement Worth it?
Iron supplements can help reverse low iron levels or treat iron deficiency anemia. They can produce results quicker than diet interventions and are often considered the treatment method of choice.
These supplements can be particularly helpful among people who are prone to low iron levels, especially if they’re unable to maintain a good iron status through diet alone, including:
- pregnant people
- infants and young children
- people experiencing heavy periods
- frequent blood donors
- people with cancer
- people with gastrointestinal disorders, such as celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease
- those who have undergone gastric surgery
- people with heart failure
- those taking iron-depleting medications, such as those used to reduce stomach acid
- people regularly partaking in heavy exercise
- those following a vegetarian or vegan diet
- people with blood disorders, such as thalassemia or sickle cell anemia
- people with alcoholism
It’s important to note that taking iron supplements when they’re unnecessary could harm your health, partially because they typically contain high doses of iron, which can cause digestive issues and reduce the absorption of other nutrients in your gut.
Taking these supplements unnecessarily may also cause cell damage, and in severe cases, result in organ failure, coma, or death. Negative side effects can occur in anyone, but appear especially fatal in children.
Therefore, always speak to your healthcare professional about getting your or your child’s iron status tested before taking iron supplements, and always follow your healthcare provider’s dosage recommendations.