Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS
8 min read
Iron is an important mineral for the functioning of your body. It is fortunately found naturally in many foods. You can also get iron through a dietary supplement or through food that has been fortified with iron. As an essential mineral, it’s important that you get as much of it as you can from your food. In nature, iron can be found in two forms: It can be found as heme iron, which is a form of iron found in animal-derived foods and is readily absorbed by your body; and it can be found as non-heme iron, which is found in plant-based and iron-fortified foods and isn’t as easily absorbed. Iron is also available in supplement form, which may be especially helpful for those who, for a variety of reasons, don’t get enough iron in their diets.
Iron is a key component of hemoglobin, an erythrocyte (red blood cell) protein that helps transfer oxygen from your lungs to your body’s tissues. It’s also a component of myoglobin, a protein that supplies oxygen; in that role, it supports muscle metabolism and healthy connective tissue. Iron’s main function is to help carry oxygen throughout your body in red blood cells. Moreover, iron is necessary for neurological development, cellular functioning, the synthesis of some hormones, and physical growth.
Iron-deficiency anemia is what happens when your balance of iron intake, iron stores, and the body’s loss of iron are insufficient to support the production of erythrocytes, or red blood cells. In other words, iron-deficiency can happen if the amount of iron you’re taking in isn’t enough to make up for what you lose in the course of your day. The effect of iron-deficiency on your health, while typically not fatal, can be profound. In countries with highly developed health care systems, this disease is easily identified and treated, although it can tend to be overlooked. In underdeveloped countries, the problem of iron-deficiency anemia is more widespread, especially among women and children. There’s much work to be done to address these systemic inequities.
The problem with early symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia is you may not notice them; they tend to be quite mild. Per the American Society of Hematology, many don’t realize they have mild anemia until taking a routine blood test. Symptoms of moderate to more severe cases of iron-deficiency anemia may include:
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is based on gender and certain life factors. For men, the RDA is 8mg. For women and people who menstruate, it’s 18mg. For people who are pregnant, it’s 27mg. And, for people who are breastfeeding, it’s 9mg.
If low iron levels are a problem for you, you might want to consider trying an iron supplement. Iron supplements will make an impact more swiftly than a change in diet, making them the preferred treatment option in many cases. Supplements can be especially useful for those people who are prone to low iron levels, including:
If you recognize yourself in any of these groups, you may be experiencing low iron levels. Consult with a medical professional to see if this problem applies to you. If it does, then an iron supplement may be your best bet for helping the problem.
However, it’s important to only take iron supplements once they’ve been deemed necessary for your health. Otherwise, you may increase your iron intake beyond a healthy level, which creates its own set of problems, including problems with digestion and with absorbing nutrients in your gut. Unnecessary use of iron supplements can result in more severe problems, too, including cell damage, organ failure, coma, or death. Side effects can happen to anyone, but are especially worrying for children. That’s why, again, it’s important to follow your healthcare provider’s dosage recommendations.
If your goal is to treat iron-deficiency anemia, then the typical treatment is to take daily oral iron supplements for at least three months. Talk to a medical professional first, because some doctors may advise you to keep taking iron supplements even after hemoglobin levels have returned to normal.
The presence of other nutrients can inhibit your body’s ability to absorb iron. If you’re treating a deficiency, you’ll want to take an iron-only supplement.
Avoid taking your iron supplement with tea, coffee, milk, or other foods that may inhibit absorption. Caffeine intake, in particular, may pose a problem.
Vitamin C, however, helps enhance iron absorption. You can consider taking your supplement with orange juice, bell peppers, or other good sources of vitamin C.
That’s the big question, and the answer is: Well, it depends on your specific health needs. Many forms of bioavailable iron are on the market. Some of more popular options are ferrous and ferric iron salts; these include ferric sulfate, ferrous gluconate, ferrous sulfate, and ferric citrate. Other forms, such as ferrous bisglycinate chelate, are not as likely to cause gastrointestinal problems.
Like most good things in life, achieving the right iron levels can take some time. That’s especially so if you’re trying to address low levels. Your doctor can recommend a plan that’s tailored to your specific needs. In general, iron-deficiency anemia is treated with a daily supplement for up to three months in order to replenish tissue iron stores.
That depends. If you have an iron deficiency, it’s common to recommend that you take iron in split-up daily doses to reach your daily goal. According to the NIH, the upper limit of safe iron supplementation is 45mg but dosages may vary depending on individual recommendations. .
That being said, studies suggest that taking smaller doses once daily and taking iron every other day may increase absorption and tolerability. As always, you should ask a healthcare provider for specific dosing instructions, tailored to your particular needs.. Don’t take high dose iron pills unless recommended and monitored by a healthcare professional, as side effects from iron toxicity can be severe.
Once again, this depends! For those who need it – as recommended by a doctor – it can absolutely be OK. Most people don’t take iron every day, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. It’s all about checking your facts and running your situation by a professional. Taking too much iron can lead to iron toxicity, which has bad side effects.
If you have chronically low iron stores, or if you have inadequate dietary iron intake – maybe you’re committed to a vegan diet – you may benefit from a daily iron supplement that can keep you at optimal levels.
As always, check with your doctor for advice about dosing and how often you should be taking your supplement.
One side effect of iron supplements can be constipation. You may be wondering – is there any way to avoid that? Well, there are some steps you can try. You can break your recommended dose into smaller doses throughout the day, and you can stay hydrated. Staying hydrated is crucial.
Some doctors may also recommend starting off by taking half your recommended dose and building up over time. You should also consider the form of iron you’re purchasing before you start to take it. Ferrous sulfate, for example, is a form of iron that’s much more likely to cause constipation than other forms, like iron bisglycinate chelate.
If these steps don’t work, you may want to consider a stool softener. Just be sure to talk with your doctor beforehand.
Iron can be toxic if taken in very high doses. It’s important to figure out your proper dose with the help of a healthcare professional before you commence your iron supplement routine. You should also discuss which iron supplements are more likely to cause side effects.
Some side effects caused by taking iron supplements include:
To avoid side effects and toxicity, you should try not to exceed the established Tolerable Upper Intake Levels for iron supplements – unless advised to do so by a doctor. The levels are:
40mg per day for babies and kids 45mg per day for teens and adults
Iron-related side effects can be especially troublesome for children. Moreover, a young child can easily mistake iron supplements for candy and ingest too much, which can be fatal.