Iron is an essential trace mineral that plays several important roles in the body. It is a component of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body. Iron is also involved in the production of myoglobin, a protein found in muscles that helps store oxygen for use during exercise. In addition, iron is necessary for the production of several enzymes and is involved in the production of DNA.
Function of Iron
- Hemoglobin Production: Iron is an essential component of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues. Without adequate iron, the body cannot produce enough hemoglobin, leading to a condition known as anemia.
- Energy Metabolism: Iron is involved in several metabolic processes that help the body convert food into energy. Iron is necessary for the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecule that cells use to store and transport energy.
- Immune Function: Iron is also involved in immune function, helping to fight off infections and support the body’s defenses against foreign invaders.
- Brain Development: Iron is essential for brain development, particularly during fetal and early childhood development. Iron deficiency during these critical periods can lead to cognitive and developmental delays.
Sources of Iron
Iron can be found in two forms: heme iron and non-heme iron.
Heme iron is found in animal products and is more easily absorbed by the body.
Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods and is not as well absorbed. However, consuming non-heme iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods can enhance the absorption of non-heme iron. For example, consuming spinach (a non-heme iron source) with oranges (a vitamin C source) can help increase the absorption of the iron in the spinach.
Some sources of iron include:
- Red meat (beef, pork, lamb)
- Poultry (chicken, turkey)
- Seafood (oysters, clams, tuna)
- Beans and lentils
- Spinach and other leafy greens
- Fortified cereals and breads
- Nuts and seeds (pumpkin seeds, cashews)
Causes and Symptoms of deficiency
Iron deficiency can be caused by several factors, including:
- Inadequate intake: Iron deficiency can occur if a person’s diet does not include enough iron-rich foods, such as red meat, poultry, fish, beans, and fortified cereals.
- Increased demand: The body may require more iron during periods of growth, such as infancy, adolescence, and pregnancy. Women who have heavy periods may also be at risk of iron deficiency.
- Poor absorption: Some medical conditions, such as celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease, can affect the body’s ability to absorb iron from food.
- Blood loss: Iron deficiency can occur due to blood loss, such as from a stomach ulcer, colon polyp, or heavy menstrual bleeding.
Symptoms of iron deficiency can vary from person to person, but may include:
- Fatigue and weakness
- Pale skin
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Cold hands and feet
- Brittle nails
- Poor appetite
- Restless legs syndrome (RLS)
- Increased susceptibility to infections
If left untreated, iron deficiency can progress to iron deficiency anemia, a condition in which the body does not have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to the tissues. Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia can include those listed above as well as:
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Difficulty concentrating
- Frequent infections
It is important to speak with a healthcare provider if you experience any of these symptoms, as they can be indicative of other health conditions as well. Iron supplements may be recommended to help increase iron levels in the body, but it is important to speak with a healthcare provider before starting any supplements.