Important body functions depend on ensuring normal levels of iron in your body. While iron is critical for good health, an estimated 3 million Americans remain iron deficient, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports. At greatest risk are pregnant women and women of childbearing age who may have additional iron needs. Without adequate levels of iron, you may experience serious health complications.
Importance of Iron
Iron is a mineral the body uses to make the protein hemoglobin, a component of red blood cells. Hemoglobin is necessary for carrying oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. Iron also helps muscle cells store and use oxygen and is important in the formation of enzymes necessary for critical body functions such as digestion.
Normal hemoglobin levels for women range from 12 to 15.5 g of hemoglobin per deciliter of blood. Hemoglobin levels below 12 g/dL for non-pregnant women and 11 g/dL for pregnant women are a sign of iron deficiency, according to the National Anemia Action Council.
Experts recommend women 19 to 50 years old consume 18 mg of iron daily, while women 51 and older consume 8 mg daily. Rich dietary sources of iron include poultry, fish, lean red meat, liver, dried fruits, lentils, beans, tofu, eggs, grains, oysters, green vegetables, and iron-fortified cereals or breads.
Pregnant women, women with heavy menstrual periods or uterine fibroids may require additional iron above normal levels. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, pregnant women require about twice as much iron as non-pregnant women, with an estimated 50 percent of pregnant women being iron deficient. During pregnancy, the demands of the growing fetus boost iron needs of expectant mothers. Inadequate iron levels increase the risk of premature delivery and serious health complications among preterm babies. Consequently, experts recommend pregnant women consume 27 mg of iron each day, while nursing women 19 to 50 years old consume 9 mg daily. Red blood cell and iron loss from heavy bleeding during menstrual periods or slow bleeding from uterine fibroids may also increase your iron needs. To get enough iron, your doctor may recommend an iron supplement.
Iron is unsafe in high levels and may cause nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, liver failure, low blood pressure, shortness of breath and even death. Low levels of iron can lead to anemia, causing weight loss, headache, dizziness, abdominal pain and fatigue. Before taking an iron supplement, always consult your doctor. Iron supplements can interfere with the absorption of some anti-inflammatory, cholesterol-lowering, antacid, high blood pressure and ulcer medications.
Certain foods or drinks may interfere with iron absorption in your body. Avoid coffee or tea, dairy products and whole-grain foods during iron-rich meals. Eat foods rich in vitamin C with your meals to help your body absorb iron from vegetable, fruit and grain sources of the mineral. Take iron supplements on an empty stomach two hours after your meal or one hour before eating and not at the same time as antacids or calcium supplements.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Anemia; May 2008
- National Anemia Action Council; Anemia Basics; February 2009
- Mayo Clinic; Iron Deficiency Anemia; March 2011
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Iron
- Centers For Disease Control and Prevention; Iron and Iron Deficiency; February 2011
- Mayo Clinic; Iron Supplement; February 2011