The Role of Iron in Maintaining Optimal Health

The Role of Iron in Maintaining Optimal Health

08 Mar 2018

The Role of Iron in Maintaining Optimal Health

Iron can be considered the body's gold reserve as it contributes to the vitality of every cell. Iron is the mineral responsible for producing hemoglobin which in turn transports oxygen from the lungs throughout the body. Iron-rich hemoglobin also assists with the elimination of carbon dioxide. In addition to hemoglobin, and often overlooked, iron also helps build myoglobin in the muscles. This is the twin molecule of hemoglobin, responsible to receive oxygen from heme into the muscles. So when you experience fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, or racing heart during exercise it can be attributed to low myoglobin levels.


Individuals with low iron may get sick more frequently and take longer to. recover.

So if iron is so important what foods are iron-rich? The iron in foods can be broken down into 2 types: heme and non-heme. Heme sources of iron include red meat, poultry, pork and organ meats. Non-heme sources are eggs, dark leafy green vegetables, pastas, beans and dried fruits such as raisins and apricots.


Iron supports brain development in children and is crucial to optimal brain. function throughout our lives.

Daily Iron Requirements:
Women: 18mg/day
Men: 8mg/day
Vegetarians: 32mg/day

What if we are eating all the right foods and our iron stores (ferritin) are still low?
There are many factors which may contribute to iron-deficiency. Vegans and vegetarians are at risk. Further, those individuals who have a compromised gastrointestinal system (IBD, Crohn’s, hiatal hernia, bleeding ulcer, intestinal bypass or colon polyp) will be at risk of IDA (iron deficiency anemia). Individuals on PPI drugs (like Nexium, Losec, Pantoloc, etc) no longer absorb iron well due to lack of stomach acid. Interestingly, cyclists, runners and endurance athletes are also vulnerable. Finally, women aged 13 to 50 are the largest IDA population, due to menstruation.


India has the highest occurrence of IDA (iron deficiency anemia) among women and adolescent girls in the entire world.

What is considered a normal iron level?
One way to measure iron is through serum ferritin. This method creates a snapshot of the amount of stored iron (ferritin) in the body.

Ferritin Range:
Females: 12 to 307 ng/ml (Mayo Clinic)
Males: 12 to 336 ng/ml (Mayo Clinic) ng/ml=nanogram per milliliter of blood.

Individuals at the lower end of the range will experience symptoms which include fatigue, hair loss, cold hands and feet, pale skin, swollen or inflamed tongue and brittle nails.

Supplementation may be required to increase ferritin levels if a food-based approach is not working. The majority of iron supplements on the market are salt-based. These include ferrous sulfate, ferrous gluconate, and ferrous fumarate. Salt-based iron supplements are typically poorly tolerated. They create havoc within our gastrointestinal tract resulting in stomach upset and constipation. These nasty side effects reduce compliance and ultimately hinder any appreciable gains in ferritin levels.

A newer alternative to the salt-based iron supplements is Carbonyl Iron. Carbonyl Iron is metallic iron – not a salt. It’s fine particle size and the particle’s huge surface area allows for a much slower but more successful absorption. With an absorption rate of 69% doses per capsule can be lower but very little iron is left behind compared to iron salt forms. This in turn leads to less stomach upset and no constipation. Improved energy is often reported within a few short days of starting Carbonyl Iron supplementation.

In conclusion, if you are experiencing signs of iron-deficiency or are at risk, check with your doctor immediately. If you are diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia it may be necessary to supplement in addition to choosing iron-rich foods.  Consult your local natural health store for all the options.

HealthLink BC
Human Kinetics, Vegetarian Sports Nutrition-Enette Larson-Meyer
National Institutes of Health 2016
Mayo Clinic, Minnesota

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