Do you get exhausted early? Do you find it difficult to climb the stairs without a gasp, even though you are physically fit? If yes, chances are you may be low on iron- especially if you are a pregnant woman.
Although you might not think of iron as an essential nutrient, you will be shocked to know that figures from the CDC show, more than 10 million Americans are deficient in iron, and 5 million of those develop iron deficiency anemia.
Let us delve into why iron is so essential for your health, how much iron you need to take daily, its food sources, causes and symptoms of iron deficiency, and when you need to take iron supplements.
Health Benefits of Iron
You may know iron to be essential for the synthesis of hemoglobin- a protein that carries and transfers oxygen from lungs to other body parts. But it has a lot more to do with your health. It gives you energy, improves your muscle stamina, keeps your focus and concentration, boosts your immunity, detoxifies your body, and makes you sleep well and enough.
● Hemoglobin-Oxygen Delivery: Iron is a crucial mineral required to synthesize hemoglobin- the major protein in your red blood cells, which helps carry and transfer oxygen from lungs to every cell of your body. The cells in your body need oxygen for their metabolism (energy production, waste degradation, etc.). Without enough iron, your body fails to make enough numbers of red blood cells, leading to iron deficiency anemia. You get easily fatigued, shortness of breath, pale skin, headaches, and lightheadedness.
● Energy Production: Some enzymes that catalyze oxidative phosphorylation (the process of generating ATP- the ultimate energy source for cells, from the foods you eat) require iron as a cofactor for their optimum functioning. Without enough iron, you may not be able to convert food into energy and feel fatigued and lethargic.
● Brain Health: Iron is also beneficial for your brain health. It is essential for the cognitive functioning of our brains. It increases your attention span and concentration. It helps convey your brain’s signals to muscles and helps them move. It also helps synthesize neurotransmitters- chemicals that transfer information from your brain to other body parts.
● Body Detoxification: Iron acts as a cofactor for enzymes that neutralize the harmful radicals and toxins from your brain and body as well as other potential toxins entering the body from the outside environment.
● Immune Health: Iron is essential for both your innate and adaptive immunity. It activates your immune cells to fight against foreign invaders and pathogens. It also helps in the synthesis of different chemicals that boost immunity. Moreover, iron can also directly damage bacteria and pathogens. All these effects of iron boost your immunity and keep your disease-free.
● Temperature Regulation: Iron is also essential for your body’s temperature regulation. It helps heat production and prevents heat loss from the body. Iron deficiency has been associated with disturbed thermoregulation. It may be due to bad thyroid functioning due to iron deficiency.
● Sleep Quality: Iron also promotes your sleep quality. A 2015 study showed an association between iron deficiency and sleep difficulties like restless sleep, insomnia (inability to sleep), and sleep apnea. Iron supplementation in iron-deficient individuals significantly improves their sleep length and quality.
● Healthy Pregnancy: Iron also promotes a healthy pregnancy. Adequate iron levels help make new red blood cells to deliver oxygen and other nutrients to the developing baby. Moreover, iron is also crucial for the early brain development of the embryo. Iron deficiency can lead to serious health problems in the baby as well as the mother.
How Much Iron Do You Need Daily
Your daily requirements for iron may vary depending upon your age, sex, and diet.
Both males and females need a little more than usual amounts of iron during their puberty. Females during their reproductive age need more iron than males due to massive iron loss in menstrual bleeding. Pregnant and lactating mothers need an additional amount of iron to meet their baby’s iron demands.
Here is a detailed description of the recommended daily allowance of iron, depending on the age of a person.
● Newborns up to six months old: 0.27 milligrams per day.
● Seven months to one-year-old: 11 milligrams per day.
● 1-3 years old: 7 milligrams per day. ● 4-8 years old: 10 milligrams per day.
● 9-13 years old: 8 milligrams per day. ● 14-18 years old: 11 milligrams per day. ● Older than 19: 8 milligrams per day.
● 9-13 years old: 8 milligrams per day. ● 14-18 years old: 15 milligrams per day. ● 19-50 years old: 18 milligrams per day. ● Older than 51 years: 8 milligrams per day. ● Pregnant women: 27 milligrams per day ● lactating women: 10 milligrams per day.
Iron is found in a variety of both animal and plant foods. Animal foods provide you with heme-iron while plant foods offer non-heme-iron. Heme-iron is better absorbed from the gut.
Non-heme-iron absorption from the gut is also affected by other foods you eat along with iron foods. Fruits high in vitamin C, like lemons and oranges, significantly increase the absorption of iron from intestines.
Similarly, there are certain foods and medicines which hinder the absorption of iron from the intestines. Foods include legumes, beans, cereals, and coffee, and medicines include proton pump inhibitors (used to treat stomach ulcers), tannins, and phosphates in carbonated water.
Iron is a low bioavailability nutrient. It means that your gut can absorb and utilize only a small portion of the iron you eat. Your intestine absorbs around 40% of heme-iron from animal foods you eat. For non-heme-iron from plant foods, you can absorb only 2% – 20% of the foods you eat.
Therefore, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of iron for vegetarians is 1.8 times more as compared to non-vegetarians who take most of their iron requirements from animal meat.
Here are some excellent food sources of heme and non-heme iron.
● 3.5 ounce (100 grams) of Beef Liver provides 4.2 milligrams (mg) of heme-iron. Pregnant women should not eat beef liver as it contains high amounts of retinoic acid. ● 3.5 oz (100 grams) of Turkey Meat may provide up to 1.5 mg or heme-iron. ● 3.5 oz (100 grams) of Canned Clams provide 3 mg of heme-iron. ● 3.5 oz (100 grams) of Canned Tuna Fish delivers 1.6 mg of heme-iron. ● 3.5 oz (100 gm) of Red Beef provides 2.7 mg of heme-iron.
● 3.5 oz (100 grams) of cooked Spinach may provide 2.5 milligrams of iron. ● 3.5 oz (100 gm) of boiled Chickpeas offer 6.4 mg of iron. ● 1 cup of stewed Tomatoes provides 3.5 mg of iron. ● 1 cup of Tofu provides 5 mg of iron. ● 3.5 oz (100 gm) baked Potatoes provide 1.87 mg of iron. ● 1 cup (150 gm) serving of Broccoli provides 1 mg of iron.
What Is Iron Deficiency Anemia
Anemia is a health condition in which your body fails to synthesize enough numbers of red blood cells to carry and deliver oxygen from the lungs to other body parts. There are many causes of anemia, but iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia.
As described above, you need iron to synthesize hemoglobin- the main oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells. Less iron leads to less hemoglobin synthesis, ultimately leading to decreased synthesis of red blood cells.
Causes Of Iron Deficiency
Iron deficiency appears either when you don’t get enough iron from your diet, don’t absorb iron through your gut, or you lose a lot of iron due to blood loss of any cause.
Here are some common causes of iron deficiency leading to anemia:
● Insufficient Iron Intake. Not eating iron-rich foods (e.g., vegans) over an extended period may lead to iron deficiency. As iron is essential during the growth and development period, children and pregnant women should prefer eating even more iron-rich foods. ● Defective Iron Absorption from Gut. Despite including adequate iron-rich foods in your diet, you may still go iron deficient if your gut doesn’t absorb the iron from the foods you eat. Certain intestine disorders or surgeries can affect the iron absorption from your stomach. ● Heavy Blood Loss. Blood loss, due to any reason, also accompanies the loss of iron from the body. Internal bleeding due to ulcers in the stomach or intestine or external bleeding due to any injury, heavy menstruation, or during childbirth may also lead to iron deficiency. Heavy bleeding due to endometriosis may also cause iron deficiency in women. ● Pregnancy. Pregnant women need extra blood cells to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the developing baby. They need excess iron to synthesize new red blood cells. If not met through diet, this requirement may lead to iron deficiency in pregnant women.
Symptoms of Iron Deficiency Anemia
At first, the symptoms of iron deficiency anemia may remain mild, and you may not even get a hint about them. The data from the American Society of Hematology shows that most people just don’t know that they have symptoms of mild anemia until they get a regular blood test.
The main symptoms of moderate to severe iron deficiency anemia include:
● Pale Yellow Skin ● Paleness in the white of the eye ● Unusual weakness and fatigue ● Dizziness ● Shortness of breath ● Headaches ● Light-headedness ● Cold extremities ● Tingling sensation in the legs ● Tongue soreness ● Brittle nails, and ● An irregular, fast heartbeat.
Treatment of Iron Deficiency Anemia
The treatment options for iron deficiency anemia aim to replenish the iron levels in the body. You may increase the iron-rich foods in your diet (but it is a time taking option) or may take iron supplements to meet ion demands on an urgent basis. For better absorption, you should take iron tablets on an empty stomach. You may need to take iron supplements for about six months. Iron supplements may also cause constipation.
Treating the cause of heavy bleeding and preventing blood loss may also be a good treatment option for iron deficiency anemia if due to blood loss.
Iron is a nutrient essential for your health. Its primary role is in the synthesis of hemoglobin. It also benefits your brain health, immune system, and sleep quality. Not eating enough iron-rich foods over a long time may lead to iron deficiency anemia. Pale skin, fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, and headaches are symptoms of iron deficiency anemia. You should consult your doctor if you have these symptoms. Iron supplements are commonly used to treat iron-deficiency anemia.