Although iron supplements are not recommended for everyone, they are available over the counter and by prescription, in different forms and doses, for people who experience iron deficiency. Iron deficiency should not be self-diagnosed, but rather it must diagnosed by a professional health care provider who can recommend or prescribe appropriate supplements. Healthy people who are not getting enough iron can usually take multivitamin and mineral supplements that include iron and supply no more than 100 percent of the recommended daily value, DV, for any nutrient.
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Adult women between the ages of 19 and 50 need 18 mg of iron each day, and men the same age require 8 mg, according to the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine's Food and Nutrition Board. The recommendation for both men and women 51 or older is only 8 mg. Because iron supplements often contain much more than the daily recommended dose, foods that are high in iron, such as fortified breakfast cereals, legumes, leafy green vegetables, seafood and lean meats, are the best sources for most healthy people.
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, according to the World Health Organization, and affects many women of child-bearing age. Blood loss, pregnancy, insufficient iron in the diet or a medical condition that results in poor iron absorption can lead to iron deficiency, or low levels of iron in the blood. Untreated iron deficiency can lead to a condition known as iron deficiency anemia, which is often treated with supplements. Iron-deficiency anemia should be diagnosed by a physician and supplements taken only as prescribed.
Most women do not need to take iron supplements, according to the Institute of Medicine. Health care providers are advised by the Institute of Medicine to prescribe multivitamin and mineral supplements that contain up to 30 mg of iron for any woman who is at risk of deficiency. Pregnant women may be prescribed a daily iron and folate supplement that contains 30 mg of iron and 0.4 mg of folate. Women who are diagnosed with anemia may be prescribed higher doses of iron with monitoring.
Iron is not readily absorbed by the body, which is one reason why supplementation is necessary for some people who cannot get enough iron from their diets. The form of supplemental iron that is most efficiently absorbed by the body is ferrous iron, according to the National Institutes of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements. It is available as ferrous fumarate, ferrous sulfate and ferrous gluconate. Iron may be prescribed in divided doses or in a time-release form for better absorption throughout the day.
Over time, high doses of supplemental iron cause excess iron to accumulate in the blood in some people, leading to a condition known as iron overload. Iron overload can cause damage to the liver, heart and other parts of the body. Adult men and postmenopausal women are at highest risk of iron overload, according to the National Institutes of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements.
An acute (one-time) overdose of iron in children can be toxic or even fatal, so it is important to keep iron supplements out of the reach of babies and children.