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Iron is a mineral most of us are familiar with. Not surprising, given that iron deficiency is often associated with fatigue, a common and inconvenient factor in modern life.

Iron is a mineral most of us are familiar with. Not surprising, given that iron deficiency is often associated with fatigue, a common and inconvenient factor in modern life. From a nutritional viewpoint, iron is an essential trace mineral in the human diet. Dietary sources include red meat, liver, shellfish, sardines, beans, peas, lentils, and whole grains.

Putting Iron to Work

Your body needs iron to produce hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin is the oxygen-carrying pigment in blood cells. Myoglobin is the pigment that stores oxygen in muscle cells. Iron also has a role in the function of several enzymes where it's involved in oxygen uptake facilitating the conversion of oxygen to energy in blood cells. Adult bodies contain approximately 4.5 grams of iron. About 60 to 70 percent of which is contained in hemoglobin, 3 percent in myoglobin, and the remainder is stored in various organs including the liver, spleen, kidney, and bone marrow as ferritin, hemosiderin, and siderophilin.

Iron Deficiency

Iron deficiency, known as anemia, is a fairly common medical condition caused by a variety of factors, including poor iron absorption and inadequate intake of iron and/or co-factors such as vitamin C that increase the absorption of iron. Other factors leading to anemia include traumatic or menstrual blood loss, pregnancy, parasitic infections, and micro-hemorrhaging due to strenuous exercise or fragile blood vessels. High intake of oxalates (e.g. spinach and rhubarb), polyphenolic compounds (e.g. tea and coffee), and phytates (e.g. cereal fibre) can also inhibit iron absorption. Indications of iron deficiency include fatigue, paleness, shortness of breath, irritability, apathy, and reduced resistance to infection. Athletes, pregnant women, and menstruating women suffering from cyclical blood loss are often prone to iron deficiency. Iron deficiencies in men who do not participate in strenuous activities are much less common.

Iron Supplements

Iron comes in several forms including ferrous sulfate, ferrous fumarate, ferrous gluconate, iron dextran, and iron-polysaccharide complex. Ferrous sulfate is problematic for many, often causing constipation and digestive upset. Chelated iron, including ferrous gluconate, particularly if formulated with vitamins C and B complex, is usually well absorbed and easily tolerated by comparison. Recommendations regarding iron intake vary from 10 to 30 mg per day - but low-dosage, high-absorption supplements are preferred. Iron formulations are available in tablets, capsules, and liquid from your local health food store.

Too Much Iron

Although iron deficiency is common, excess iron is actually more common with older men and post-menopausal women. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that of 1,000 participants between the ages of 67 to 96, 13 percent had excess iron whereas only three percent were iron deficient. The characteristics that make iron so useful in oxygen transport and oxygen-reduction reactions also make it a very effective free radical if present in amounts in excess of what is required by the body. Extremely high doses of iron or the genetic predisposition to accumulate iron have the potential to damage tissues. People consuming large amounts of iron rich foods or exclusively using iron pots and pans may have some reason for concern. Symptoms of excess iron include dehydration, low blood sugar and blood pressure, fever, and drowsiness. Given iron's dual nature, ferritin and hemoglobin levels should be tested by a qualified practitioner before supplementing.

Calcium and Iron Interaction

While it has been suggested that calcium supplementation inhibits iron absorption (and vice versa), the evidence is contradictory at this point. If you require both iron and calcium supplements, it is probably best to take your iron in the morning and calcium later in the day just in case.

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