Iron is a mineral that we cannot live without. We need iron to make red blood cells. Red blood cells are critical for us to function as this is how oxygen gets transported to all the cells in our bodies.
Where do I find iron?
Iron rich foods include: dark-green leafy vegetables, iron-fortified cereals, liver, nuts, apricots and fortified breakfast cereals. Vitamin C facilitates iron absorption, so drinking orange juice when eating iron-rich foods can be helpful. Men need 8.7mg of iron a day and women 14.8mg. You’ll get most of your iron through your diet but some people require supplements to make up a shortfall.
Why do I need iron?
Red blood cells contain a protein called haemoglobin which carries oxygen from the lungs to all of the body’s cells. Oxygen is the body’s fuel used to burn sugar and fat to produce energy. In order to make haemoglobin the body must take in sufficient amounts of iron, vitamin B-12 and folate (vitamin B9). If the body lacks any of these nutrients it cannot produce more red blood cells and anaemia will develop.
How will I know if I am lacking in iron?
If you are lacking in iron you will probably feel tired and short of breath. Other symptoms can include dizziness, palpitations, brittle hair and fraying nails, chest pains, mouth sores, headaches and leg pain.
A lack of iron will mean you are anaemic which means you do not have enough red blood cells in your body. If you are short of haemoglobin then trying to carry oxygen around your body is like trying to run on empty.
An iron deficiency can occur due to a low-iron diet, heavy periods, during pregnancy, or because of bleeding in the stomach or intestines caused by certain diseases. Tea and coffee can inhibit the absorption of iron so you may want to cut down on these beverages if your iron levels are low. Iron tablets can quickly reverse anaemia. Occasionally iron injections are given but this is less common. The most commonly prescribed supplement is ferrous sulphate, which is taken orally (by mouth) two or three times a day.
Can too much iron be harmful?
Yes - too much iron (doses over 20mg) causes nausea, constipation, vomiting and stomach pain. At very high levels it can be fatal, particularly for children. Iron supplements are generally only necessary if a test has revealed that you are deficient. Too much iron can also lead to a condition called hemochromatosis which can cause diabetes and liver damage. Hemochromatosis is an inherited disorder but it can occur in people who overload on iron over a long time period.