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When Should You Take An Iron Supplement? What To Know.

Some people are especially vulnerable to iron deficiency. Read on to learn about iron deficiency and whether iron supplements are right for you.

Iron is a mineral that is vitally important to the health of your body, performing many roles and helping you maintain healthy energy levels. Yet, despite its importance, iron deficiency is not uncommon in the United States. In this article, we take a look at why iron is important to your health and whether taking iron supplements might be a good idea for you.

Why iron is important

Iron is important to your health for a variety of reasons. The first thing to know is that it’s an essential part of hemoglobin, which is a red blood cell protein that delivers oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. It’s also a component of myoglobin, another protein that helps deliver oxygen throughout your body. In these roles, iron is necessary for supporting muscle metabolism and healthy connective tissue. Moreover, your body needs iron for physical growth, neurological development, cellular functioning, and the synthesis of some hormones.

To better understand why iron is so important, though, it can be helpful to consider what happens when your levels get too low. When your levels are too low, you’ll probably start to notice. Some symptoms of iron deficiency include tiredness, poor concentration, and dizziness. However, many people, despite experiencing these symptoms, don’t think to connect them to their iron levels – especially when iron deficiency is in an early stage, since the symptoms can be associated with a variety of factors. Be sure to talk to your doctor about any new symptoms and health concerns to address the underlying cause.

You can start to reverse iron deficiency through some tweaks to your diet. Iron is a mineral that’s present in many foods and added to some others. However, if dietary changes don’t do the trick, iron supplements can be part of the solution.

How and when to take iron supplements

You shouldn’t take an iron supplement without first getting your levels tested. Iron needs will vary on a person-to-person basis, and if you get too much iron, you can develop even worse problems, as excess iron can be toxic.

Once you’ve determined, with the help of a medical professional, that an iron supplement is right for you, you’ll want to find one that’s easily absorbed. Care/of’s iron supplement, for example, includes calcium and magnesium ascorbate (buffered forms of vitamin C), which helps your body absorb iron at a faster rate. Care/of’s supplement is also a chelated form of iron. Chelated minerals are minerals combined with a chelating agent, such as an amino acid. Such minerals are prevented from interacting with other compounds and are easier to digest than non-chelated minerals.

How much iron should you take?

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of iron ranges between 8-18 mg, depending on age and gender. During pregnancy, the RDA goes up from 18 mg to 27 mg. If you are deficient, you may want to take more than that, based on the state of your deficiency. Talk with a medical professional before commencing with iron supplementation.

When to take iron supplements (morning vs. night)

There are no standard rules for what time of day to take iron supplements. Determining the optimal time largely depends on personal preference. To minimize side effects, iron supplements should ideally be taken with a small amount of food and water. Regardless of what time of day you decide to take iron, it’s important to be cautious with other medications you take alongside them.

Should you take iron supplements with a meal?

It’s recommended to take iron supplements at least 30 minutes before a meal to help enhance absorption and reduce stomach discomfort. However, it’s critical to avoid pairing iron supplements with milk, calcium, antacids, high-fiber foods, or caffeinated beverages, as these can all inhibit absorption.

Can you take too much iron?

Yes, it’s possible to take too much iron. A person should only supplement with iron if their doctor recommends it. Taking too much can lead to iron toxicity and a whole host of medical problems, including tissue damage and digestive issues. Iron toxicity can also reduce your gut’s ability to absorb other nutrients. Be on the lookout for dark stool, digestive problems, and liver problems, as well as yellowing of the skin. Moreover, taking too much iron can lead to cell damage and, even worse, can be fatal for young children. You should keep your iron supplements out of reach of young children.

Beyond these immediate concerns, it's essential to be patient and informed about the long-term effects of iron supplementation. It can take up to 3 months to see alterations in hemoglobin levels, and it can take even longer before you observe a rise in iron storage levels, known as ferritin. Given these dynamics and the potential for iron overload, it’s important to consult a medical professional for periodic testing of iron levels while supplementing.

How long will it take to feel the benefits of iron?

One study found that the impact of iron supplementation can be seen within 3-7 days. Lab values are likely to begin improving within 2-4 weeks. However, other times iron supplementation has been shown to take up to 3 months before benefits are felt.

What to do if iron supplements make you feel ill

According to the NIH, taking more than 45 mg/day of supplemental iron may cause gastrointestinal side effects, such as nausea and constipation. If you find yourself experiencing such issues, you may want to consider other forms of iron supplementation. Alternatives like heme iron polypeptides, carbonyl iron, iron amino-acid chelates, and polysaccharide-iron complexes are known to have fewer gastrointestinal side effects.

If nausea is an issue for you, it's advisable to take iron supplements at least 30 minutes before a meal. However, if nausea remains a persistent issue, consider taking the supplement with small amounts of food. But remember, for optimal absorption and to avoid further complications, avoid consuming them with milk, calcium, antacids, high-fiber foods, or caffeine. Also, make sure to leave a gap of at least 2 hours between your iron intake and when you take other medications.

Individuals that should take iron

Iron supplements are a faster, more efficient treatment for iron deficiency than simple dietary changes alone. That’s why, according to some medical professionals, supplements are the treatment of choice. However, you should always consult medical professionals before taking an iron supplement, since too much iron can also lead to problems.

There are certain members of the population who are especially vulnerable to iron deficiency and could therefore stand to gain from taking iron. Some of these people include:

If you fall under any of these categories and you’re experiencing some symptoms of iron deficiency, you should talk to a medical professional as soon as you can.

Symptoms of low iron

As has been mentioned, low iron levels are surprisingly common, especially among certain members of the population. Some people show symptoms of iron deficiency without making the connection to their iron levels. Low iron symptoms sometimes present as:

  • Pale skin
  • Cold extremities
  • General fatigue
  • Brittle nails

If you’re showing any of these symptoms, you may want to talk to a medical professional about your iron levels. If the symptoms are left unaddressed, you may be at risk for iron-deficiency anemia.

Foods high in iron

The two forms of dietary iron are heme and non-heme.

Foods that are rich in heme iron include lean meat and seafood. Foods that are rich in non-heme iron include nuts, beans, vegetables, and fortified grain products.

Note: Drinking tea can disrupt iron absorption, so you may want to wait a few hours after supplementation to enjoy your nightly cup.

The bottom line

Iron is a vitally important mineral, supporting your body in many ways. Iron deficiency is common, and certain members of the population are especially susceptible to it. Iron supplements can be an effective way of treating a deficiency, but should never be taken without first consulting a medical professional.

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