Iron is a mineral that your body uses to make two proteins: hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin helps your red blood cells move oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. Myoglobin brings oxygen to your muscles. Iron is also important in making hormones, as well as tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissue.
You might not notice anything at first because your body will use what it has stored in your muscles, bones, liver, and elsewhere. But when these supplies run out, your red blood cells get smaller and so carry less hemoglobin. That means less oxygen gets delivered throughout the rest of your body, which is one kind of anemia.
You might feel tired, weak, or dizzy and have pale skin, a fast pulse, cold hands, headaches, and digestive problems. A weaker immune system could make you sick more often, and your body temperature could vary more than usual. It can even affect your ability to think clearly and remember things. Children who get anemia from lack of iron sometimes develop learning problems.
It's more likely if your diet isn't great or if you don't eat much meat, fish, or poultry. It also can happen if you lose blood due to injury or illness (like ulcers or colon cancer) or you have a condition that hampers digestion. Women get it more than men, especially once their monthly cycle starts or if they're pregnant. And iron levels can go down as you get older and start to eat less.
If you're a man, you should get about 8 milligrams (mg) per day. If you're a woman 19 to 50 years old, you need more than double that: about 18 mg per day. That jumps to 27 mg if you're pregnant and drops to 10 mg if you're breastfeeding. After age 50, women's needs drop to the same as men: 8 mg per day.
Your body doesn't absorb iron from vegetables as easily as it does from animal protein like fish, chicken, and meat. That's why vegetarians or vegans should almost double the daily iron amount that doctors recommend for meat eaters. That's 14 mg for men, and 32 mg for women age 19-50. You can do it if you eat a varied diet and get plenty of vitamin C (in foods including oranges, red peppers, strawberries, and broccoli), which helps your body absorb the iron.
Oysters, beef liver, white beans, lentils, and spinach are some of the top natural food sources. Lean meat, seafood, and poultry are great animal sources and help your body absorb iron from other foods like beans, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables. Iron is also in many "fortified" grain products like bread and breakfast cereal. Check the label to see how much is in a serving.
Women who've been through menopause and men probably don't. Other people might, but most get enough iron from food. Too much iron can cause stomach cramps, constipation, nausea, diarrhea, and lightheadedness. It also could make it harder for your body to absorb enough zinc. Overdoses of iron supplements, which can provide different amounts of iron, can cause life-threatening problems in children younger than 6. And most adults shouldn't get more than 45 mg of iron per day, so it's best to ask your doctor first before taking any iron supplements.
You need more iron to keep up with the greater amount of blood that nurtures you and your growing baby. Without enough, your baby might be born too soon or with a low body weight. It could even cause problems with parts of your baby's brain development. Your doctor will likely watch your levels and may prescribe a supplement if you need it or just to be safe.
Around 10% of infants and toddlers don't get enough iron. If your little one was born early or underweight, they may not have much in the tank. Even a full-term baby only has enough for a few months before it runs out. If not restocked, this early lack of iron could lead to behavior and attention problems later. Talk to your doctor about how to track, and, if needed, supplement your child's iron.
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- Cleveland Clinic: "Anemia," "How to Tell If You Have Iron Deficiency Anemia."
- Kaleidoscope Fighting Lupus.
- Office of Dietary Supplements: "Vitamin C," "Iron."
- Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute: "Iron."