Iron is an essential nutrient for your body’s continued health. Your body needs iron in order to allow your red blood cells to carry oxygen to every part of your body. If your organs and tissues don’t get enough oxygen, you’ll have problems, including a lack of energy, inability to focus, mood swings and irritability, and reduced stamina.
Aside from supporting oxygen disbursement, adequate iron levels also contribute to healthy skin, hair, and nails.
While iron is a very important nutrient for your body, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States. About 20% of women in the U.S. are low in iron, and this is especially cause for concern for women who are pregnant or nursing, who suffer from anemia at a 50% rate because fetuses and nursing infants greatly increase the iron requirements on a mother’s body.
How Does Iron Work in Your Body?
Iron supports blood health—especially oxygen levels in the red blood cells. Dietary iron boosts your blood’s hemoglobin levels, which is the substance that carries oxygen within the red blood cells. Without iron, your red blood cells become fewer, smaller, and lacking in color.
When you eat iron-rich foods, the iron is absorbed through the upper part of your small intestine. A healthy gut contributes to more efficient iron absorption rates (and better absorption rates for other nutrients, as well!).
Where Do You Get Iron?
Iron comes from your diet, and there are two kinds of dietary iron: heme and non-heme. Heme refers to hemoglobin, which is what heme iron is derived from. It’s easy, therefore, to remember that heme iron comes from food sources that originally had hemoglobin: beef, fowl, other meats, animal organs, fish, and shellfish. Non-heme iron comes mainly from plant sources, although meat can also be a source of small amounts of non-heme iron.
Your body absorbs heme iron more easily, but most of our dietary iron is non-heme. If you are eating a diet that includes some quality meat sources along with plenty of vegetables, you’re likely to be getting enough iron.
Supplementing with Iron
Several factors might contribute to the need for you to supplement with iron: a damaged gut can decrease iron absorption rates; you don’t eat enough iron-rich foods; you are a pregnant or nursing mother; or you have a disease that is causing iron deficiency anemia.
Always check with a doctor before starting an iron supplement. Your symptoms, along with a blood test called a CBC (Complete Blood Count), which measures hemoglobin and hematocrit levels (among other things), will help you and your doctor decide if you suffer from iron deficiency. Because it is possible to get too much iron when taking a supplement (which can lead to iron toxicity, though this is rare), work with your doctor to determine the right amount of iron for you. The body excretes only small amounts of iron, and excess iron can build up in the tissues and organs over time.
Vitamin C taken with an iron supplement helps with absorption rates. Calcium, on the other hand, can hinder iron absorption; it’s best to stagger your intake of calcium and iron so that they are not working against each other.
While iron is best absorbed on an empty stomach, some people suffer from nausea, upset stomach, or constipation when taking iron this way. If this occurs, take your supplement with some food, and try to make the meal rich in iron and Vitamin C and low in calcium.
A quality liquid or chelated iron supplement is most easily absorbed and utilized by the body. Use them in conjunction with a healthy, balanced diet, and avoid sugary foods, sodas, and junk foods to increase absorption.