Iron is one of those supplements that in the 1970s were touted as a way to boost energy and improve health for those coping with what marketing teams called iron-poor blood. (Maybe you might remember those Geritol commercials and magazine ads?)
The popularity of the supplement back then has left many modern women wondering where they stand when it comes to iron and if they should supplement with a contemporary version of the classic iron-based supplement.
In short, the answer is no, even though iron deficiency anemia remains one of the most prevalent nutritional problems worldwide, according to a 2006 study from Johns Hopkins University, with children and women in underdeveloped countries primarily at risk. (Ref. 1)
Most women in countries where good food is readily available have no need for iron supplements, though there can be some exceptions.
What does iron do?
Iron is a vital part of the body’s ability to produce red blood cells, and when there is not enough iron, there are also not enough red blood cells, which can trigger exhaustion.
That’s because the red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen – essentially fuel – to your cells, so when there are not enough on hand to do the job, our cells aren’t properly fueled and our body responds with feelings of unusual tiredness.
Other symptoms of iron deficiency include shortness of breath, a decrease in the ability to perform physical activity and learning problems, as well as an increase in the risk of infection.
Is low iron a reality?
According to a 2012 study appearing in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, women who complained of feeling tired during visits with their doctors saw their symptoms improved by 50 percent after they were given an iron supplement. (Ref. 2)
Though none of the women had low enough iron levels to warrant a diagnosis of anemia, there was no recognizable cause for the feelings of tiredness, and the results suggest that low iron levels could be a reason for fatigue in pre-menopausal women.
The low iron levels were likely a result of losing stored iron through menstruation, since bleeding is the only way that our bodies release stored iron. Women with exceptionally heavy periods lasting more than five days are at a higher risk of low iron, since they are able to store less than those with lighter periods.
According to an article appearing in the Atlantic Monthly, women of childbearing age need about 18 milligrams of iron per day, although many only get between 12 and 13 milligrams. (Ref. 2)
Other reasons women may need iron supplements include:
- Bleeding problems
- Intestinal diseases
- Stomach problems
- Medications that increase red blood cell count
Vegetarians and vegans are also at risk, because while there are two different kinds of iron – heme, found in meat and poultry – and non-heme, found in vegetables and foods cooked in cast-iron cooking vessels – heme iron is more easily absorbed. (Ref. 2)
But even if you feel as though you might need an iron supplement, it’s important to see a doctor before beginning a supplementation routine, because excess iron intake can be riskier than lower iron intake.
The dangers of too much
According to experts, too much iron can lead to organ damage and increase the risk of diabetes, heart attack and cancer.
It can also lead to an increased risk of liver diseases including cirrhosis and cancer, heart failure, osteoarthritis, metabolic syndrome, hypothyroidism and a host of other problems.
Chronic elevated iron levels can also accelerate the progression of neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, as well as epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. (Ref. 3)
While many believe that the elderly are most at risk of low iron levels, according to the Framingham Heart Study, a long-term assessment of risk factors for heart disease that began in 1948, less than 3 percent of seniors participating had low iron levels, and high levels were a much more pressing concern.
“The likely liability in iron nutriture (the state and/or bodily condition with respect to nutrition and especially with respect to a given nutrient) in free-living, elderly white Americans eating a Western diet is high iron stores, not iron deficiency,” the authors wrote.
High iron levels also lead to higher risk of developing diabetes, according to the Nurses’ Health Study, which followed 10,000 women for a period of 10 years, and found those with the highest stored iron levels were three times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. (Ref. 4)
Natural is best
While as we’ve learned, iron supplements may sometimes be necessary, in most cases foods can provide the iron we need.
Some iron-rich food options include:
- Meats, fish and poultry including beef, turkey, lamb, liver, chicken, eggs, shrimp, tuna and scallops;
- Vegetables including leafy greens like kale, collards and chard, tomato paste, peas, broccoli, sweet potatoes and green beans;
- Fruits, especially dried fruits including dates, figs, prunes, dried apricots and dried peaches;
- Legumes including lentils, beans, split peas, soybeans and chickpeas;
- Soy products such as tofu; and
- Condiments including black-strap molasses and maple syrup. (Ref. 5)
Some foods, however, can interfere with iron absorption, including spinach – it contains oxalic acid – foods high in calcium and high-fiber foods. Vitamin C and acid-rich fruits on the other hand can improve iron absorption. (Ref. 2)
Additionally, adding our Kiwi-Klenz to your diet can help improve your digestive system’s function so it better absorbs the nutrients in the foods you eat, decreasing the need for a supplement.
What’s your favorite way to take in extra iron? Do you have a favorite recipe for kale, perhaps, or do you add dried fruits to a mix? Please share your healthy tips with our readers either here or on our Facebook page!