Iron is an important element for the body as it helps in the production of red blood cells in the blood called hemoglobin and in muscle cells called myoglobin. Hemoglobin is essential for transferring oxygen to the blood from the lungs to the tissues. A healthy adult has approximately 3.5-5g of iron.
Iron is vital for the synthesis of red blood cells and is an important component of the hemoglobin molecule. Besides being an oxygen carrier, iron aids in the conversion of blood sugar to energy, which is of utmost importance for athletes, allowing them to work optimally during exercise or when competing.
Why is Iron Important for our Body?
Many enzymes that are imperative for the production of new cells, proteins, hormones, and neurotransmitters, rely on iron. Iron is necessary when recovering from an illness, or for rejuvenation after vigorous exercise or competition.
Iron is of great significance to growing children, and pregnant women. Children’s physical and mental growth requires sufficient iron levels, and the unborn fetus is completely dependent on the mother’s iron supplies.
Our body is regularly losing iron through urination, excretion, sweating, and sloughing off old skin cells. Bleeding or blood donations can contribute to a further loss. This is why women have a greater demand for iron than men.
When iron levels and stores are low in the body, hemoglobin production falls. This decreases oxygen transportation and distribution across the body, giving rise to symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue, reduced immunity, etc.
Iron deficiency is the most common mineral deficiency worldwide according to the World Health Organization. Children and women being the most affected, and men to a lesser degree.
Iron deficiency can be due to a diet deficient in iron (resulting in low body iron stores as well), or due to an inadequate number of red blood cells. When the red blood cell count is significantly reduced, it is known as anemia.
Some common symptoms of the initial stages of iron deficiency include:
- Tiredness and fatigue
- General lack of energy and stamina
- Decreased ability to concentrate
- Pale pallor
- Dry, brittle nails & hair
- Sores at the corner of the mouth
- A sore tongue
- Cold hands and feet
Iron Deficiency causes Anemia
The slow and gradual depletion of iron stores without restoration, can result in a drop of red blood cells and lead to anemia. Anemia is obviously a more severe form of iron deficiency.
Some common symptoms of anemia include:
- Restless legs and tingling in fingers and toes
- Poor concentration and behavioral problems (especially in children)
- Potentially, the condition worsens further over time resulting in a fast pulse rate, impaired immune system and possibly heart problems. All these conditions are associated with decreased oxygen supplies to tissues and organs.
If you experience any of the symptoms above, please contact your doctor or health care advisor. Specific tests for iron and its stored form, ferritin, can give proper diagnostic information with regards to anemia. These symptoms should be taken seriously at all times.
Daily Requirement of Iron & Causes of Iron Deficiency
One’s daily requirement for iron is dependent on factors such as gender, age, and overall health. In general, growing children need more iron than adults. From ages 4-8, both girls and boys need about 10mg daily, and 8mg from ages 9-13.
From ages 19 to 50, women need about 18mg of iron daily, while men the same age require only 8mg. This is due to the monthly menstruation of women, resulting in blood loss. After menopause though, women need 8mg of iron a day, as their cycle has ended.
More Iron is required during pregnancy (and breastfeeding); blood loss due to ulcers; diseases that prevent proper absorption of iron, dialysis treatment which can remove iron from the body, etc.
There are many factors that inhibit iron absorption
When we examine the causes of iron deficiency, we find that only 5-20% of the iron in food is absorbed by the body.
Ingredients found in tea and coffee like tannins and bran found in wheat, oats, maize, and cereals can inhibit the absorption of iron in the body. Therefore, the intake of iron is increased if tea and coffee are avoided.
Vitamin C aids in the absorption of iron
Iron-rich foods are best absorbed when paired up with a vitamin C rich food. This makes the iron more ‘bioavailable’, meaning more of the iron will be readily absorbed by the body, due to the synergetic combination of ingredients.
Foods that are naturally dense in their iron proportion will also render their iron more bioavailable for the body. However, one’s rate of absorption is dependent on the health of one’s digestive system.
The table below lists good vegetarian sources of iron with their respective iron content.
|Table 1: Iron Content of Selected Vegan Foods
|Lima beans, cooked
|Black-eyed peas, cooked
|Swiss chard, cooked
|Kidney beans, cooked
|Black beans, cooked
|Pinto beans, cooked
|Turnip greens, cooked
|Beet greens, cooked
|Veggie hot dog, iron-fortified
|1 hot dog
|Bok choy, cooked
|Veggie burger, commercial
|Brussels sprouts, cooked
|Sources: USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 24, 2011 and Manufacturer´s information.
Treating Iron Deficiency or Anemia
Eating an iron-rich diet may not suffice at times, which is when your doctor may recommend taking an iron supplement.
Before you take any supplement, you are advised to get tested for your iron levels by your doctor and follow their advice on the course of treatment. Supplements can cause some side effects such as upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dark stools, or constipation. As this can be irritating, starting with a low dose of iron and then gradually increasing the dose to the daily recommended amount may help subdue some of the side effects.
Iron – a simple mineral, yet so important! Make iron-rich foods a primary part of your daily diet.
Contact Jagadguru Kripalu Yoga and Naturopathy Hospital, Odisha, for lifestyle consultation.
by Pragya Sinha