What is Iron?
Iron is a mineral that is present naturally in some foods, added to many food products, or formulated as a dietary supplement. It is an essential mineral that plays various vital roles in the body. Iron is part of hemoglobin, a red pigment that is involved in the transport of oxygen to the rest of the body through blood cells.
Besides carrying oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, iron also promotes the growth and development of the body cells. The mineral is also involved in the metabolic process as a component of myoglobin. Myoglobin is a protein then provides oxygen to the muscle tissues. Iron is also involved in the synthesis of some hormones in the body, as well as connective tissues.
Dietary iron exists in two primary forms: heme and non-heme. Non-heme iron is contained in fortified foods and plants. Other foods such as meat, poultry, and seafood are rich in both heme and non-heme iron. When a free iron combines with protoporphyrin IX, it forms a heme iron, which contributes to about 15 percent of the total iron that is used by western populations.
About 4g of the iron that is present in the body of an adult is present in hemoglobin. The remaining portion of iron is stored in the form of ferritin or hemosiderin. Hemosiderin is the product formed from the degradation process of ferritin. The iron is stored in major organs in the body, including the spleen, liver, and bone marrow. The iron can also be stored in the myoglobin, the protein of the muscle tissue.
Humans lose a small percentage of iron in feces, urine, and through the skin. However, the loss of iron is increased in menstruating women due to high blood loss. The key hormone that regulates the absorption of iron and its distribution to the rest of the body is a circulating peptide hormone that is known as hepcidine.
The measures of iron available in the body are crucial in determining the level of mineral depletion. Iron depletion can be detected at an early stage by measuring ferritin concentrations in the plasma.
Severe iron depletion is marked with a reduced delivery of iron to the body cells. Iron deficiency is associated with a decreased serum concentration, low reticulocyte hemoglobin, and a reduced concentration of transferrin saturation in the body.
Other indications of a severe iron depletion include high total iron binding capacity and an increase in the level of serum transferrin receptor. The last stage of iron deficiency in the body presents with iron-deficiency anemia and reduced concentrations of hemoglobin in the blood. Iron deficiency anemia occurs when the mean corpuscular volume and the mean cell hemoglobin are below the recommended range.
Hematocrit, which represents the proportion of concentration of red blood cells, is also low. The diagnosis of iron deficiency anemia is made by carrying out the hemoglobin and hematocrit tests.
When the hemoglobin levels fall below 13 g/dl in men or 12 g/dl in women, it is considered a confirmation of iron deficiency anemia. The standard concentration of hematocrit is approximately 50 percent in males and 44 percent in females.
Uses And Health Benefit Of Iron
1. Enhancement Of Muscle Function
Muscle movement relies on the availability of iron because the mineral plays a vital role in the storage of oxygen. The oxygen gas stored in the muscle tissues is crucial for muscle strength and movement. More than 70 percent of the iron available in the body is found in hemoglobin. The rest is stored in other organs such as the liver and the spleen.
The iron is also present in myoglobin, which is an important muscle protein. Hemoglobin binds to oxygen and carries it to the rest of the body, including the muscle tissue. Myoglobin, on the other hand, is responsible for accepting, storing, and transporting oxygen in the muscle tissue.
Iron is necessary for the myoglobin protein to absorb and transport oxygen in the musculature tissue. During iron deficiency, the role played by myoglobin protein would be compromised, causing weak muscles.
2. Replace Lost Iron During Menstruation
Heavy menstruation is one of the most common risk factors associated with iron deficiency anemia. During menstruation, women are encouraged to consume plenty of foods that are high in iron. The consumption of an iron-rich diet will help in reducing the risks that are associated with the development of iron deficiency anemia.
3. Provision Of Iron Promotes A Healthy Pregnancy
Health experts advise that pregnant women should consume a lot of foods that are high in iron. Both the pregnant woman and the fetus require an adequate supply of the essential mineral for normal functioning of the body. Experts recommend that a pregnant mother should consume 27 milligrams of iron on a daily basis.
The daily iron requirement is covered by most prenatal multivitamins. It is also advisable for a pregnant mother to consume foods that are high in healthy fat and folate. The World Health Organization states that iron deficiency is likely to cause congenital malformations during birth and increased mortality risk in both the infant and the mother.
Iron deficiency could also result in premature birth or an underweight newborn baby.
4. Increased Energy Levels In The Body
Iron deficiency compromises the ability of the red blood cells to distribute oxygen to the rest of the body. As a result, organs such as the brain, muscles, and other tissues do not get an adequate supply of oxygen gas. An individual having iron deficiency will present with fatigue and weakness.
Lack of energy is also a common symptom of an iron deficiency in the body. Other symptoms may include shortness of breath, headache, coldness, pale skin, and weakness, among others. Iron supports the provision of energy by supporting the transport of oxygen to the rest of the body. The mineral also supports the metabolic process that involves the breakdown of nutrients to form energy in the body.
5. Boosts The Brain Function
Proper functioning of the brain tissue is dependent on adequate oxygen supply. If sufficient oxygen is not supplied to the brain due to lack of iron, an individual will experience symptoms such as poor memory, apathy, and reduced productivity.
Symptoms in children who are diagnosed with iron deficiency include irritability, restlessness, and poor attention in class. Once the iron levels in the body are restored, the symptoms begin to disappear.
Studies have been conducted to demonstrate the effect of iron deficiency on learning and memory. According to these studies, the lack of iron during the early years of life can lead to harmful effects.
The experts explain that iron deficiency during childhood can result in memory and learning deficits. According to a report that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the levels of iron in the body correspond to variations in the brain structure of healthy individuals.
6. Restless Leg Syndrome
Restless leg syndrome is a condition that is characterized by an uncomfortable feeling in the legs that forces one to move them to feel comfortable. Statistics show that restless leg syndrome affects 10 percent of American adults annually.
Low levels of iron in the body are one of the leading causes of restless leg syndrome. Consuming food that is rich in iron can help in the management of the syndrome. Other nutrients that could assist in the improvement of the condition include the B vitamin complex and folate.
7. Regulation Of Body Temperature
Iron facilitates the processes involving the regulation of body temperature. The mineral helps keep the body temperature stable to facilitate biological processes in the body, including enzymatic and metabolic functions. The processes take place most efficiently only at their most favorable temperatures.
8. Oxygen Carrier
One of the most basic yet important benefits of iron involves transporting oxygen gas to the rest of the body tissues. The role is vital since the various organs in the body rely on the availability of oxygen to carry out their functions.
9. Neurotransmitter Synthesis
Iron is also involved in the synthesis of various important neurotransmitters in the body, including dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters have a vital role in the activities of the brain and neurons.
Side Effects Associated With The Use Of Iron Supplements
Along with the abovementioned benefits, administration of iron supplements may result in some unwanted side effects. However, not all of the mentioned side effects will occur when a person uses an iron supplement.
The most reported side effects of iron supplements include headache, chills, chest pain, and irritation at the injection site (specifically for those taking an injectable iron supplement). Patients who take supplements that are formulated as tablets may complain of nausea and vomiting.
There may also be a discoloration of the fecal matter, as well as abdominal discomfort. It is advisable to visit a healthcare provider whenever any of these symptoms present.
Less common or rare side effects include a general unwell feeling and visual disturbance in which an individual sees double images. The patient may also present with weakness without necessarily having dizziness or fainting.
Other rare side effects seen with the use of iron supplements include chest pain and throat pain that is experienced during swallowing. Whenever a patient experiences any of these symptoms, they should contact their doctor or pharmacist immediately.
An overdose of an iron supplement may present with side effects that are classified as early symptoms and late symptoms. The initial symptoms include fever, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Overdose may also lead to stomach pain and cramping. The late symptoms of iron overdose include the occurrence of convulsions, pale skin, and unusual tiredness. The patient may also present with fatigue and shallow, rapid breathing.
Patients may also experience other side effects that may not be listed here. It is advisable to consult your health care provider whenever such cases occur.
Foods That Are High In Iron
The safest and best iron for your body is iron obtained from natural food sources. Heme iron is better absorbed in the body. However, non-heme iron from plants is the safest because it causes less damage than heme iron. Below is a list of the different types of foods that can be used as sources of iron in the body:
One ounce of this algae is capable of providing 8mg of iron. Besides iron, it is also rich in other nutrients, including essential amino acids, the B vitamin complex, and vitamins C, D, and E.
Three ounces of organic beef liver provides the body with 4.05 milligrams of iron. Liver is very rich in heme iron. It is the best food to be included in the diet of anemic patients.
3. Grass-Fed Beef
Grass-fed beef is another great source of heme iron. Beef weighing 214 grams provides 4 milligrams of iron. Besides iron, it is also rich in other nutrients, including vitamins A and E.
4. Black Beans
These are rich in both iron and protein fiber. ¼ cup of Black Beans provides the body with 1.8 milligrams of dietary iron.
This leafy green vegetable is rich in iron as well as other essential nutrients, such as vitamins. ¼ cup of cooked spinach has 3.2 milligrams of dietary iron.
These little fish are an excellent source of heme iron. They are also rich in other essential nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. ¼ cup of sardines provides the body with 1.8 milligrams of iron.
Top Products That Contain Iron
1. Nature Made Iron
This product is vital for the manufacture of red blood cells in the body. It is free from substances such as artificial flavors, preservatives, and yeast, which may cause side effects. Besides iron, the product has other ingredients, including cellulose gel, ferrous sulfate, dibasic calcium phosphate, and magnesium stearate, among others. Nature Made Iron has an overall rating of 4.6 stars out of a possible five stars on Amazon. It is sold at $5.85.
2. Solgar – Gentle Iron
This product has iron as the principal ingredient. The product is designed specifically for individuals with low levels of iron in the body. It also promotes proper energy utilization and the synthesis of red blood cells. This product's overall rating on Amazon is 4.5 out of a possible five stars. It is sold at $12.48.
3. Rainbow Light Complete Iron System Food
The iron contained in this formula is food-grown. Besides iron, it also has other ingredients, including thiamin, vitamin C, vitamin B12, and pantothenic acid. It has an overall rating of 4.5 stars out of a possible five stars and is sold at $11.89.
Although iron deficiency is a common problem, it is quite manageable. The best way to avoid iron depletion is through the consumption of foods that are high in iron. Iron supplements may also become necessary if you cannot keep your iron levels up using food sources alone. However, dietary intake of foods that are rich in iron is the most natural and safe way of supplementing iron levels in the body.