Iron Overview, Health Benefits, Source Food, Deficiency, Side effects

Iron Overview, Health Benefits, Source Food, Deficiency, Side effects

Iron Overview

The mineral iron forms the most important part of the oxygen capture protein hemoglobin in human blood - this protein is involved in binding with oxygen and is part of red blood cells - iron gives blood its red color. Hemoglobin carries oxygen bound in the lungs to the cells and binds with carbon dioxide again as blood flows back from the cells to the lungs for re-oxygenation. The mineral iron also forms a vital component in myoglobin - a molecule related to hemoglobin found in muscles. Myoglobin acts as the receptor and storage point for some of the oxygen found in muscle tissues. The intracellular cytochrome protein system also requires the presence of iron - this protein system is involved in energy production in the mitochondria of all cells.

Iron is an important component of hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to transport it throughout your body. Hemoglobin represents about two-thirds of the body’s iron. If you don't have enough iron, your body can't make enough healthy oxygen-carrying red blood cells. A lack of red blood cells is called iron deficiency anemia.

Iron is essential for the proper growth and development of the human body. It helps metabolize proteins and plays a role in the production of hemoglobin and red blood cells. Iron deficiency can lead to conditions like iron deficiency anemia, chronic anemia, cough, and pre-dialysis anemia, anemia in pregnancy.
The health benefits of iron include the eradication of different causes of fatigue. Iron also plays a key role in strengthening the immune system by making it strong enough to fight off infections. Iron builds concentration, treats insomnia, and regulates body temperature.

The health benefits of iron correspond to proper growth of human body and maintaining robust health. It is an essential protein component for metabolism. Body needs iron to produce red blood cells. The human body is capable of preserving 15 % of iron for future use, especially in the case of inadequate diet intake.

In the body, about 70% of iron is found in hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin is the primary transporter of oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues, while myoglobin is in muscle cells, and makes acceptance, storage, transportation, and release of oxygen possible in those cells. About 5% of iron is found as components of various proteins and as necessary elements in certain enzymatic reactions. Finally, up to 25% of the body’s iron is stored in ferritin, which is in the cells and circulating in the bloodstream. Ferritin can store up to three years’ worth of iron supplementation for men, but only about one year’s worth for women, which is why anemia is more common in females.

Iron Deficiency

Reasons for Iron Deficiency

The average human adult body has at least 3 to 5 grams of iron in total. The liver acts as the site for storage of approximately one gram of the body's iron molecules. The iron found in red blood cells is salvaged somewhat efficiently when red blood cells undergo disintegration. The rest of the body's iron is nevertheless lost through the sweat, to hair and via the skin; iron is also lost through bleeding and through urinary and fecal excretion. Iron loss for the average healthy adult male is about one mg daily, while iron loss in healthy women is from one to two mg of iron a day. The iron lost in menstrual bleeding, through injury and bleeding, is drastically higher.

There are many different reasons that a person might have an iron deficiency. They include anemia, pregnancy, heavy menstrual cycles, kidney disease, chemotherapy and frequent blood donations. Diet is also an important factor in the amount of iron that a person has. Strict vegetarians may need to take supplements more often than non-vegetarians since they do not consume the best source of iron- red meat.

Iron Deficiency Symptoms

Iron deficiency can have far reaching effects in the person, as iron is required in some amount by all cells in the body and all cells depend on oxygen from hemoglobin. The direct consequence of iron deficiency is anemia. In this disorder, there is a marked lowering of the total amount of circulating hemoglobin in the blood. Anemic iron loss results in the red blood cells turning very pale - they are not able to bind and transport as much oxygen as the cells normally require. Symptoms that are evident in a person affected by anemia include pallor, generalized weakness, persistent fatigue, and labored breathing on even mild exertion, symptoms like a headache, heart palpitation and persistent tiredness are also normally evident in the person. A form of a condition called pica - a perverted appetite for a (usually) non-edible item - often affects a person suffering from long term iron deficiency. People affected by such a condition can also develop an appetite for ice -pagophagia. Iron deficiency can also cause physical symptoms such as the dry scaling of lips, development of spoon nails and loss of hair.

The immune system of the person suffering from iron deficiency anemia is also depressed in most cases. The ability of white blood cells to eliminate bacteria and other infective particles is also disrupted and reduced. The use of iron supplements in two groups of children affected by anemia and a depressed immunity led to an improvement in their ability to ward off infections of all kinds. The development and growth of tumors induced in test animals by means of chemical agents or viruses was also enhanced if they suffered from iron deficiency. The degeneration of the periodontal tissues in test animals is also connected to iron deficiency.

People lacking iron cannot perform normal functions in an optimal way. Furthermore, women and children need more iron than their male counterparts, and anemia strikes them particularly hard.  Severe iron deficiency may cause progressive skin ailments that cause brittleness of nails and extra smoothness in the tongue area. The enzymatic processes that require iron and the proteins that need it as a building block or co-factor will not be able to occur, and the body metabolism can slow or even shut down. Anemia is considered the most common global nutritional deficiency.

Good food sources of Iron

Iron has a low bioavailability, meaning that it has poor absorption within the small intestine and low retention in the body, decreasing its availability for use. The efficiency of absorption depends on the source of iron, foods consumed with the iron, and overall iron status of the person. In many countries, wheat products and infant formulas are fortified with iron.

As far as dietary sources of iron are concerned, iron from animal sources is always absorbed better than iron from plant sources. Consuming meat may also enhance the absorption of iron from plant based foods. Acids and acidic foods also tend to increase the rate of absorption of iron from dietary sources. Iron absorption rates can also be boosted by the vitamin C (ascorbic acid) - absorption is increased as much as tenfold.

Iron is abundant in foods like the various organ meats - the liver and heart, kidney etc, it is also found in high amounts in lean meats, in shellfish, and among vegetables in dried beans and fruits, in all kinds of nuts and green leafy vegetables, as well as whole grains and in blackstrap molasses. The rather poor absorption of iron used to fortify processed cereals has been suggested by some clinical studies. The iron present in human milk is absorbed five times more efficiently as is the iron found in cow's milk or baby milk formula. A well nursed baby does not require any additional iron supplements if the nursing mother has sufficient iron stores in her body.

Drug stores sell different types of iron supplements in a large range of doses. Tablets of 1 mg to 60 mg or more are available in the market. These include a wide variety of supplemental forms - such as ferrous sulphate, glaciated ferrous sulphate, the ferrous fumarate, etc. At times combined with multi-vitamins, supplemental iron is also available in the form of syrup.

Iron in its most absorbable form called "heme" iron, is abundant in oysters, meat and poultry as well as fish. Iron called non-heme iron is present in these foods as well; non-heme iron is found in dried fruits and molasses, in green leafy vegetables, in wine and is the form of the element present in the majority of iron supplements available in the market. Dietary sources for iron include acidic foods like tomato sauce when they are cooked in an iron pan - in this case, the cooking utensil serves to supply most of the iron.

How Much Iron Do You Need?

How much iron you need each day depends on your age, gender, and overall health.  

Infants and toddlers need more iron than adults, in general, because their bodies are growing so quickly. In childhood, boys and girls need the same amount of iron -- 10 milligrams daily from ages 4 to 8, and 8 mg daily from ages 9 to 13. 
Starting at adolescence, a woman's daily iron needs increase. Women need more iron because they lose blood each month during their period. That's why women from ages 19 to 50 need to get 18 mg of iron each day, while men the same age can get away with just 8 mg.

After menopause, a woman's iron needs drop as her menstrual cycle ends. After a woman begins menopause, both men and women need the same amount of iron -- 8 mg each day.

You might need more iron, either from dietary sources or from an iron supplement, if you:  

  • Are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Have kidney failure (especially if you are undergoing dialysis, which can remove iron from the body)
  • Have an ulcer, which can cause blood loss
  • Have a gastrointestinal disorder that prevents your body from absorbing iron normally (such as celiac disease, Crohn's disease, or ulcerative colitis)
  • Take too many antacids, which can prevent your body from absorbing iron
  • Have had weight loss (bariatric) surgery
  • Work out a lot (intense exercise can destroy red blood cells)
If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you may also need to take an iron supplement, because the body doesn't absorb the type of iron found in plants as well as it absorbs the iron from meat.

Can You Take Too Much Iron?

Unlike some supplements, when the subject is iron, more is definitely not better. Adults shouldn't take any more than 45 mg of iron a day unless they are being treated with iron under close medical supervision.

For children, iron overdose can be especially toxic. "Iron supplements have killed young children because their needs for iron compared to an adult's are relatively low," Thomas says. If you take iron supplements, it is very important to keep them in a high, locked cabinet, far out of your children's reach. Symptoms of iron poisoning include severe vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, dehydration, and bloody stool in children.   

It's difficult for adults to overdose on iron just from food and supplements, because an adult body has systems in place to regulate the amount of iron it absorbs. However, people with the inherited condition hemochromatosis have trouble regulating their iron absorption.

Although most people only absorb about 10% of the iron they consume, people with hemochromatosis absorb up to 30%. As a result, the iron in their body can build up to dangerous levels. That excess iron can deposit in organs such as the liver, heart, and pancreas, which can lead to conditions like cirrhosis, heart failure, and diabetes. For that reason, people with hemochromatosis should not take iron supplements.

Health benefits of Iron

Health benefits of Iron for Hemoglobin formation

The main health benefit of a diet high in iron is the formation of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the principal carrier of oxygen throughout the body and gives the dark red color to blood.  Additional hemoglobin is vitally important because human beings tend to lose blood in various ways, through injuries, both internal and external. Most notably, women lose considerable amounts of blood every month during their menstruation years, which is one of the major reasons why women are more likely to suffer from anemia than men.

Health benefits of Iron for Muscle function

Iron is a vital element for muscle health and is found in myoglobin, a muscle protein. Myoglobin carries oxygen from hemoglobin and diffuses it throughout muscle cells. This is required for contraction of muscles.  Without iron, muscles lose their tone and elasticity; muscle weakness is one of the most obvious signs of anemia.

Health benefits of Iron for Brain Function

Increased development of the brain is also one of the many benefits of iron. Since oxygen supply in the blood is aided by iron and the brain uses approximately 20% of the blood oxygen, iron is directly related to brain health and its functions. Proper flow of blood in the brain can stimulate cognitive activity and help to create new neural pathways to prevent cognitive disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, so proper iron intake and its subsequent brain oxygenation is essential.

Health benefits of Iron for Restless Leg Syndrome

Iron deficiency is one of the causes of the restless leg syndrome. Most research on this syndrome has concentrated on iron. Low levels of iron in the blood are a major cause of the condition, so proper intake of iron supplements in required levels as per doctor’s recommendations can cure this problem. This is connected to muscle spasms, which can be one of the symptoms of iron deficiency.

Health benefits of Iron for Regulation of Body Temperature

Iron is an important facilitator for regulating body temperature. An interesting fact is that it has the ability to regulate as per the absorption capacity of the body. Keeping the body temperature stable means that enzymatic and metabolic functions can happen in their most optimal and efficient environments and temperatures.

Health benefits of Iron for Oxygen Carrier

One of the most important health benefits of iron is that it acts as a carrier of oxygen and helps transfer oxygen from one body cell to another. This is a critical function of iron as oxygen is required by each and every body part to perform routine body functions.

Iron deficiency anemia

When the body’s iron levels become severely depleted, you may get anemia. Iron is also important in the treatment of iron deficiency anemia and helps cure general symptoms of anemia like fatigue, body weakness, headaches, and enhanced sensitivity to cold temperatures. A host of other chronic ailments including renal failure anemia and predialysis anemia are also helped by adequate iron intake.

Health benefits of Iron for Chronic Diseases

Iron also helps in the treatment of chronic disorders like renal failure anemia, and other chronic diseases of the intestinal and excretory system. These are not related to blood necessarily, like most other iron functions, but remember, iron is still a key part of many necessary processes throughout the body’s systems, not just the circulatory system.

Anemia in Women

Iron may also exhibit its health benefits in curing anemia that occurs in women during pregnancy or menstruation. New red blood cells must replace those that have been lost, so consuming significant amounts of iron is necessary for those women at those points in their lives.

Health benefits of Neurotransmitter Synthesis

Iron actively takes part in the synthesis of a number of essential neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These chemicals play a major role in different activities involving neurons and the human brain.

Health benefits of Iron for immune System

Iron also plays a key role in providing strength to the immune system of the human body. Thus, the body is made proficient enough to fight against a number of diseases and infections. Red blood cells are necessary for providing oxygen to damaged tissues, organs, and cells. Without iron, there would be no hemoglobin; without hemoglobin, there would be no oxygen.

Health benefits of Iron for elimination fatigue

Health benefits of iron also include the elimination of unexplained or chronic fatigue, which may occur in both men and women. Iron deficiency is a natural cause of fatigue since it is an important component of hemoglobin. So, the inclusion of iron in your diet keeps you fit, healthy, and energetic, both internally and in your external life.

Health benefits of Iron for Insomnia

Iron is also useful in treating insomnia in the human body and also improves the sleeping habits and quality of people by regulating their circadian rhythms. Proper red blood cell count can also result in less fluctuation of blood pressure, which can often keep people awake at night.

Health benefits of Iron for Energy Metabolism

Iron is an important participant of energy metabolism in human body. This process is how energy is extracted from the consumed food and subsequently distributed to different body parts.

Health benefits of Iron for Enzyme Systems

Iron happens to be the most important constituent of various enzymatic systems and other important constituents like myoglobin, cytochromes and catalase. Without these functioning properly, a number of organ systems would slow down or shut down completely.

Health benefits of Iron for Concentration

Iron, when consumed in sufficient amounts, can help focus concentration and energy, which will boost cognitive and mental performance. Increased flow of blood to the brain due to iron’s red blood cell activity is what results in this important benefit.

Iron Side effects and cautions

Fatalities can often result from huge overdoses of iron supplements - for example, a child swallowing an entire bottle of iron supplements can be lethal for him or her. For this reason, all iron containing supplements must be kept out of a reach of children at home. The excessive storage of iron in the body is apparent in disorders like hemochromatosis and hemosiderosis, as well as polycythemia and different iron loading anemias - including thalassemia and sickle cell anemia. The use of iron supplements by individuals with these disorders can be very dangerous.

Iron supplements consumed in doses required to overcome an iron deficiency often induce constipation as a side effect. This can sometimes be avoided by switching the form of supplemental iron, by getting more exercise or by treating the constipation by consuming a lot of fibers and drinking a lot of fluids. When constipation occurs, the amount of iron must sometimes be correspondingly lowered.

While no concrete link has been discovered, many clinical researchers have connected the presence of excessive amounts of iron in the body to pathologies like diabetes and cancer, an increased risk of infection, and diseases like systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), it is believed to exacerbate rheumatoid arthritis and increase the chances of heart disease. The connection between high amounts of iron and these diseases have not been proven in clinical studies to date. At the same time, it is known that free radical damage in the cells is increased by the presence of too much iron; damage from free radicals can in turn cause or exacerbate many of the diseases mentioned above. As potential risk exists and no benefits may accrue, it is advisable for people not affected by an iron deficiency to use supplement iron unnecessarily.

The rate of iron absorption in the body is reduced by caffeine, all high fiber foods and supplements of the mineral calcium. At the same time, the rate of iron absorption is slightly increased by vitamin C. Iron deficiency can often be treated by consuming supplemental vitamin A with supplements of iron, this is because the vitamin A aids the body in utilizing the body's store of iron in the liver - the result is a higher amount of iron in circulation within the body.

A drug called deferoxamine can bind to some metals, including iron, this compound then transports the iron to different parts of the human body. The compound is therefore used in the treatment of acute iron poisoning, as well as in the treatment of chronic iron overload and in alleviating aluminum accumulation that affected people with kidney failure and related renal distress. Iron supplements must also not be used by individuals taking deferoxamine to treat an iron overload disorder; such individuals should avoid the use of all iron supplements including the amounts of iron present in many multivitamin and combination mineral supplements.

The compound penicillamine also binds to metals such as copper and iron and transports them out of the body when it is excreted. There is a marked reduction in the rate of absorption and activity of penicillamine, when it is taken together with iron supplements. Reports of penicillamine induced kidney damage in at least four cases are recorded due to complete stoppage of concomitant iron therapy; these are presumably caused by a sudden increase in the rate of absorption and consequent toxic effects of excess penicillamine in the body.