Iron is a dietary mineral that plays an important role in the body. It is an essential component of haemoglobin, a substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body. If you do not absorb enough iron each day, your body's stores gradually get used up. Low amounts of iron in the blood means less oxygen is delivered to the cells.
Iron deficiency can lead to fatigue, poor work performance and low immune function. In severe case it can result in iron deficiency anaemia, a condition associated with a shortage of red blood cells. Symptoms include pale skin, fatigue, irritability, weakness, shortness of breath, pins and needles and impaired immunity.
Common causes of iron deficiency anaemia include an inadequate diet, heavy blood loss (through menstruation and gastrointestinal issues such as ulcers or cancers), increased need (pregnancy, infants or adolescent growth spurt), excretion (via sweat in heavy exercise or frequent blood donors) and an inability to absorb iron from food (intestinal disorders such as coeliac disease). In these instances individuals may need to take iron supplements when advised by a doctor.
In some cases, diet can restore the balance. However, not all iron in food is created equal. There are two types of iron: haem iron (found in red meat, chicken and fish) and non-haem iron (found in plant foods, such as wholegrain breads, iron-fortified breakfast cereals, eggs, legumes and some vegetables). Haem iron is absorbed four to five times more easily than non-haem iron, but the absorption of non-haem iron is three times greater when foods containing Vitamin C are eaten at the same meal. But there are foods that inhibit iron absorption, such as calcium supplements, tea and coffee.
If you need to increase your intake of iron, and changes to your diet aren’t sufficient seek medical advice about taking an iron supplement. Iron supplements include Swisse Ultiboost Iron, Nature’s Own Liquid Iron and Blooms organic Iron Forte. When taking iron supplements, take them on an empty stomach before bed, rather than with meals or other mineral supplements to ensure you absorb as much as you need without compromising other nutrients.
Common side effects of iron supplements include changes to bowel habits, such as dark coloured stools or constipation. Relief of constipation can be managed naturally by eating more fruits with the skin on, fresh vegetables, whole grains and legumes, drinking more water and being physically active. If constipation persists, talk to your doctor for advice, as treatment can also involve lowering the recommended dose of iron for a short time to give the body time to adjust.