Iron is critical to our health, but we usually take it for granted until we realize we may need more of it (or are getting too much of it).
Iron’s job is pretty important: It carries oxygen (in the hemoglobin of our red blood cells) throughout the human body so that our cells can produce energy. Iron also assists in removing carbon dioxide, which is a waste product (our bodies have to get rid of carbon dioxide before it reaches toxic levels and causes respiratory issues).
What Is Iron Deficiency?
According to the journal Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine, low iron levels (also known as anemia) can cause fatigue, muscle weakness, difficulty maintaining body temperature, heart palpitations, and exercise-associated dyspnea (shortness of breath). According to the World Health Organization, anemia affects a whopping 24.8 percent of the world population.
Increasing Your Iron Intake
Wondering how you can make sure your iron supply is in good standing? According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, people with mild to moderate anemia may want to consider a higher intake of iron rich foods, such as dark leafy greens, beans, and red meats.
Related: Shop iron supplements to up your supply.
“Even more important than the iron we eat is the iron we absorb,” Certified Nutritionist Tara Coleman says. ”It is important that vitamin C is present (only when consuming non-heme iron from plant sources), so try combining your iron source with citrus, broccoli, or tomatoes. On the other hand, both calcium and caffeine can decrease the absorption, so avoid having them with your iron source if you are worried about your iron levels.”
Pregnant women should pay extra special attention here: Coleman recommends making sure your iron levels are correct, since pregnancy often creates a greater need for iron, particularly in the second and third trimester when there is a significant increase in blood volume.
Can You Have Too Much Iron?
Yes! The opposite of anemia is hemochromatosis, which is when the body absorbs too much iron. “It is estimated that one in 10 people are carriers of this gene,” says Coleman.
Some people have no signs of hemochromatosis, while others experience fatigue, muscle weakness, and joint pain. The disease is first diagnosed through simple blood tests that measure how much iron your body is storing. After warning signs are indicated, a liver biopsy is the best way to definitively diagnose the disease. The biopsy checks for an abundance of iron stored in the liver tissue, which confirms hemochromatosis.
The standard treatment for hemochromatosis is a phlebotomy (the removal of blood), which can be performed every two to three months to maintain healthy iron blood levels.
People who don’t have anemia or hemochromatosis generally receive enough iron through a healthy diet. Vegetarians and vegans have to pay extra attention to their iron intake, however, as the type of iron that is most easily absorbed by the body (called heme iron) is only produced in meat. If that’s you, it’s a good idea to chat with your doc or a nutritionist about your options.