Feeling dizzy? Surprisingly and unusually tired? Experiencing shortness of breath and heart palpitations even when you’re just sitting pretty? Not to cause any panic but if you are experiencing all of these, you might want to read about getting enough iron on a daily basis – and that’s what this article is all about!

But before we go into details, here’s a major knowledge that is worth remembering – iron is an essential component of hemoglobin. We might have learned about hemoglobin in 6th grade but due to adulting and other responsibilities, it must have already slipped our minds that hemoglobin is the substance in red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen from our lungs to the rest of our body. And that if we don’t get enough iron, then our body cannot make enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen.

To know more about hemoglobin and how to maintain a healthy level, read all about it here.

Why do we Need Iron

Why Do We Need Iron?

Paul Thomas EdD RD, a scientific consultant to the National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements, explains that if our body is not getting enough oxygen, we are most likely to become fatigued. If that happens, it will affect our brain function and our immune system’s ability to fight off infections. Particularly for pregnant women, not having enough iron may increase the risk of the baby being born too early, or smaller than the normal size.

More than that, iron also plays an important role in maintaining healthy cells, skin, hair and nails. Having already established why we need iron, the question now is how much?

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for iron depends on our age and sex, and overall health. Infants and children are in most need of iron compared to adults, this is because iron aids in the growth process. During childhood, girls and boys need the same amount of iron. At the start of adolescence, a woman’s iron needs increases compared to that of a man because the former loses blood during menstruation. As the menstrual cycle ends during menopause, both older men and women will go back to needing the same amount of iron.

Infants0 to 6 months0.27 milligrams (mg)
7 to 12 months11 mg
Children1 to 3 years7 mg
4 to 8 years10 mg
Males9 to 13 years8 mg
14 to 18 years11 mg
19 years and older8 mg
Females9 to 13 years8 mg
14 to 18 years15 mg
19 to 50 years18 mg
51 years and older8 mg
During pregnancy27 mg
When Lactating between 14 and 18 years of age10 mg
When lactating at older than 19 years9 mg

However, there are cases wherein we might need more iron than the normal recommended daily allowance (RDA). Such cases are the following:

  • When pregnant or breastfeeding,
  • Having kidney failure and/or undergoing dialysis
  • Having ulcer (which might cause blood loss)
  • Having gastrointestinal disorders such Crohn’s disease, celiac disease or ulcerative colitis that prevent our bodies from normal iron absorption
  • Taking too many antacids that also prevent normal iron absorption
  • Having had weight loss (gastric/bariatric) surgery
  • Working out a lot since intense exercise usually destroys red blood cells
  • Being vegan or vegetarian as our body do not absorb iron from plants as well as the iron found in meat
  • Donating blood frequently
  • Having cancer
  • Having heart failure
  • Having blood disorders such as thalassemia or sickle cell anemia
  • Drinking alcohol frequently

Other than those conditions mentioned, without having any, you also need to be on the lookout for symptoms of iron deficiency. You can live a healthy lifestyle and still lack iron, the same goes for around 10 million in the United States. While 5 million of them have already been diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia. The World Health Organization (WHO) treats anemia as “serious global public health problem that particularly affects young children and pregnant women”. Globally, the organization estimates that 42% of children below 5 years old and 40% of pregnant women are anemic.

Anemia Prevention and SYmptoms

The condition will result to the following symptoms:

  1. Tiredness or exhaustion
  2. Lack of energy
  3. Shortness of breath
  4. Having difficulty concentrating
  5. Frequent bouts of illness
  6. Often feeling cold, having difficulty regulating body temperature
  7. Heart palpitations
  8. Headache
  9. Itchiness
  10. Ringing, hissing and buzzing noises inside the head
  11. Ringing, hissing and buzzing noises inside the head
  12. Sore tongue or difficulty swallowing
  13. Changes in the way the food tastes
  14. Heavy hair fall that could lead to hair loss
  15. Craving for non-food items such as ice or dirt
  16. Painful open sores in the corners of the mouth
  17. Restless leg syndrome (uncontrollable urge to move legs)
  18. Having spoon shaped nails

We have to keep in mind that these symptoms are most noticeable only when having low iron levels is already progressing to iron deficiency anemia. Hence, we may already be in the early stage of iron depletion without experiencing any of the signs mentioned.

Iron Fe Food Sources Infographic

Sources of Iron

Iron is one of the few nutrients with low bioavailability. Bioavailability simply means that the small intestine is not capable of absorbing large amounts of the micronutrient – which in this case, iron. Because of this, iron’s availability for use decreases and the likelihood of getting a deficiency increases. The small intestine’s capability for and efficiency of absorption depend on factors such as the source of iron, other components of the diet, gastrointestinal health, use of medications or supplements, and our overall iron status. However, one vitamin in particular has been shown to enhance iron absorption –vitamin C. To know more about Vitamin C and other vitamins that aid in our fitness journey, you can read all about them here.

There are two types of iron that can be derived from food sources – heme and non-heme. Food groups from animal sources such as meat and seafood contain heme iron. Heme iron is the type that is more easily absorbed by our body. While iron from plant sources known as non-heme iron will require multiple steps for our body to absorb – these sources include nuts, beans, soy, vegetables and fortified grains.

Reconsidering iron’s bioavailability, heme iron is bioavailable of up to 40 percent while non-heme iron from plants is only between 2 and 20 percent. This is the main reason why the recommended daily iron allowance (RDA) for vegetarians are 1.8 times higher than those who have meat in their diet in order to make up for the lower absorption level from plant-based food groups. Consuming foods rich in vitamin C alongside vegetarian diet (non-heme iron) is proven to significantly increase iron absorption.

The following food groups are considered to be best sources of iron:

  • Beef Liver: 3 ounces (oz) provides 4.17 milligrams (mg) of iron (heme).
  • Beef (Lean, ground): 3 oz provides 2.07 mg (heme).
  • Boiled and drained chickpeas: half a cup provides 2.37 mg (non-heme).
  • Boiled and drained lentils: half a cup provides 3.3 mg (non-heme).
  • Canned clams: 3 oz provides 26 mg of iron (heme).
  • Canned, stewed tomatoes: half a cup provides 1.7 mg (non-heme).
  • Cashew nuts (roasted): 3 oz provides 2 mg (non-heme)
  • Cooked Pacific oysters: 3 oz provides 7.82 mg (heme).
  • Cooked spinach: one cup provides 6.43 mg (non-heme).
  • Dark chocolate (45 to 69 percent cacao): one bar provides 12.99 mg (non-heme).
  • Dry cereal oats (fortified, plain): 100 g provides 24.72 mg (non-heme)
  • Firm tofu: half a cup provides 2.03 mg (non-heme).
  • Potato (medium baked): one piece provides 1.87 mg (non-heme).
  • White beans: one cup provides 21.09 mg (non-heme)

Benefits of Iron

Iron is essential in preserving many vital bodily functions such as gastrointestinal processes, the immune system, regulation of body temperature, and general energy and focus. Most of the time, these benefits usually go unnoticed until we experience the most common symptoms of iron deficiency anemia including heart palpitations and fatigue.

The following are significant benefits of iron:

Iron promotes healthy pregnancy and boosts immunity. To supply the need of the growing fetus for oxygen and nutrients, red blood cell production and blood volume significantly increase during pregnancy which in turn increases the demand for iron. Risk of premature delivery and low birth weight is increased by low iron intake during pregnancy. More than that, low iron in pregnant women may expose them to infections since iron also supports the immune system.

Iron treats anemia and boosts hemoglobin. Iron is the key in combating anemia, one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in existence. It is usually a direct result of hemoglobin being below normal ranges. The World Health Organization (WHO) even included iron supplementation in their treatment guidelines, policies and interventions that aim to improve infant feeding practices, bioavailability and intake of micronutrients.

Iron reduces fatigue. Even in some people who aren’t anemic, low iron levels can still reduce energy. It makes people experience fatigue longer, some lasting several weeks. Foods and supplements rich in iron can help elevate iron levels and eradicate the feelings of exhaustion and tiredness.

Iron restores sleep. A study conducted in 2015 has shown a connection between sleep issues (including sleep apnea, insomnia, restless sleep) and low iron stores. In 2007, another study found that iron therapy improves restless sleep among autistic children.

Iron Effects on Bodybuilding

Effects on Bodybuilding

Iron has a major impact in muscle endurance, general energy, and athletic performance. Adequate ad sufficient levels of iron can actually help provide the needed oxygen essential for muscle contraction and endurance since muscle weakness is one common sign of anemia. Furthermore, low levels of iron also make muscles tire and fatigue easily, they are left inflamed which could cause pain. Iron comes to the rescue by helping in the alleviation the pain as it repairs affected tissues.

Consequently, insufficient iron in our diet can also affect how our body utilizes energy. It bears repeating that one of iron’s functions is to carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscles and brain – very crucial for both physical and mental performance. Not getting enough iron can result to increased irritability, lack of focus, and reduced stamina and athletic performance. If you frequent the gym and is conscious with your gains after every workout, not getting enough iron must and should really worry you. You can’t make the mistake of not monitoring your iron intake or else the gains you worked hard for might just go to waste.

What’s next?

Now that we are aware of what iron deficiency is and what it does to our body, it is only fair and just that we make some changes in our diet and lifestyle to combat iron deficiency anemia (IDA). We don’t really have to make an adjustment so grand that it would affect our overall well-being; all we have to do is tweak our diet and eating habits a little to incorporate some tips that we will thank ourselves in the future for. Let’s start by doing the following:

Avoid combining iron-rich foods with foods or beverages that might block iron absorption such as eggs, coffee or tea, and foods high in calcium and oxalates.

Combine iron-rich foods with foods rich in vitamin C like oranges, strawberries and tomatoes. Foods with high vitamin C content improves absorption.

Eat iron-rich foods together with foods containing beta carotene such as beets, apricots, and red peppers. Like vitamin C, they help improve absorption.

Eat varieties of heme and non-heme iron food groups together throughout your day to increase iron intake and absorption.

Include foods that are rich in folate and vitamin B-12 to support the production of red blood cells. To know more about the B-vitamins and their functions, you can read all about them here.

There you go! They’re not that hard to remember, are they? Five little things that will make a significant change in our physical and mental health. Hey, you found this article for a reason, might as well take

what you learned from here and use it to your advantage. After all, you are the only one responsible for your well-being.

References:

Iron: Recommended intake, benefits, and food sources (medicalnewstoday.com)

Iron: Benefits, Side Effects, Dosage, and Interactions (verywellhealth.com)

Iron Supplements: Who Should Take Them? (healthline.com)

Iron: What You Need to Know (webmd.com)

Anaemia (who.int)