What Is It?
Iron is an essential part of haemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying component of red blood cells. It is also found in myoglobin, which supplies oxygen to the muscles, and is part of many enzymes and immune-system compounds.
What Does It Do?
By helping the blood and muscles deliver oxygen, iron supplies energy to every cell in the body. Keeping your body well stocked with iron helps your immune system function at its best and gives your mind an edge, too. Studies show that even mild iron deficiency—well short of the levels commonly associated with anemia—can cause adults to have a shortened attention span and teenagers to do poorly in school.
Do I Need a Supplement?
Having a balanced diet is the best way to get your daily iron intake. Iron is found in many foods; the best sources are those that contain haem iron (which is more easily absorbed than non-haem iron), such as red meat, fish and poultry. While it’s rare to develop an iron deficiency from poor nutrition, women with heavy menstrual periods, vegetarians and people with certain medical conditions may need supplements. Some people have an inherited disease called haemochromatosis, which causes them to absorb too much iron. Never take a supplement without medical advice. If you are unsure about your iron levels, ask your doctor for a blood test.
How Much Do I Need?
The recommended daily intake (RDI) is 8 mg for adult men and 18 mg for women (falling to 8 mg after menopause). The RDI for pregnant women is 27 mg, but they should seek medical advice before increasing their intake.
What If I Overload?
Some studies link too much iron to an increased risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease and colon cancer.
What Happens If I Get Too Little?
If your diet does not include enough iron or you bleed heavily, your body draws on its iron reserves. Initially there are no symptoms, but as your iron levels drop, so does your body’s ability to produce red blood cells. This can result in anemia, marked by weakness, fatigue, paleness, breathlessness and increased susceptibility to infection.
Women who are even slightly deficient in iron feel cold sooner than women with adequate blood levels of iron.