Smoking & Iron Levels

The adverse effects of smoking on the lungs are well-known. But if you are a regular smoker, you may also be interfering with your body's ability to absorb vital nutrients. For women especially, smoking can interfere with the absorption of dietary iron, causing a condition known as iron-deficiency anemia that can be harmful to you and your unborn children.

Young woman lighting a cigarette (Image: Image Source Pink/Image Source/Getty Images)

Role of Dietary Iron

Iron plays a vital role in many metabolic functions, but perhaps the most important is as a catalyst in the synthesis of hemoglobin. The protein hemoglobin is a component of red blood cells. As blood circulates, oxygen attaches to hemoglobin in the lungs and is carried to cells throughout the body. When hemoglobin production is impaired, oxygen delivery is compromised.

Women and Iron Needs

For women of child-bearing age, hemoglobin synthesis is especially important because women lose red blood cells through menstruation. Dieting and restricted consumption of iron-rich foods may compound the problem. Iron-deficiency anemia manifests as lethargy, fatigue, headaches, dizziness and cold extremities due to poor circulation. Pregnant women who smoke rob their unborn children of oxygen both through restricted uptake in the lungs and inadequate hemoglobin in the blood. Premature birth, low birth weight, stillbirth and sudden infant death syndrome are all linked to inadequate oxygen delivery to the fetus during pregnancy.

Vitamin C and Iron Absorption

Vitamin C plays a vital role in iron absorption. Even if dietary iron intake is sufficient, low levels of vitamin C can restrict the amount of iron the body is able to use. Smoking robs the body of this powerful antioxidant vitamin. For each cigarette smoked, about 25 mg of vitamin C is destroyed, the equivalent of one orange. A typical smoker who consumes 20 or more cigarettes per day will be hard-pressed to consume adequate amounts of vitamin C through diet alone.

Sources of Dietary Iron

Iron is found in a variety of foods, but some sources are more readily absorbed than others. Heme iron, found in red meat, fish and poultry, is most easily assimilated, while non-heme sources such as plant and dairy sources may require higher levels of vitamin C to facilitate absorption. Red meats, leafy, green vegetables, poultry, eggs and shellfish are all good sources of dietary iron.

Supplementing Iron and Vitamin C

Iron supplementation may be in order for smokers who are unable to meet daily requirements through diet. If symptoms of anemia begin to manifest or if you are a female smoker of child-bearing age, consult your health care provider concerning iron and vitamin C supplements. Pregnant or nursing mothers who smoke are at greater risk for iron deficiency and should seek nutritional counseling about diet and supplementation.

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