Iron deficiency anemia causes low levels of healthy red blood cells, reducing the body's ability to deliver oxygen to cells, tissues and organs. Iron deficiency anemia affects a large percentage of the population. Twenty percent of all women, 50 percent of pregnant women and 3 percent of men have insufficient levels of iron. Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include headache, fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, dizziness, decreased appetite, irritability, brittle nails, pale skin color and sore tongue. Doctors may prescribe therapeutic doses of iron supplements for individuals with iron deficiency anemia.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults with iron deficiency anemia who are not pregnant take one 300 milligram tablet of ferrous sulfate, containing 50 to 60 milligrams of elemental iron, twice per day for three months. Elemental iron is the iron in the supplement that is readily available for absorption. As your doctor monitors your hemoglobin levels, she may suggest that you increase or decrease your supplementation dose. Supplement treatment should return hemoglobin levels to normal within 2 months. You may need to continue taking supplements for another 6 to 12 months to replenish stores of iron in bone marrow, however.
Side effects of high iron doses may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation and other gastrointestinal distress. Taking supplements with food or beginning supplementation with a reduced dose and then gradually increasing intake may reduce side effects. Taking iron supplements with food may reduce the body's absorption of the mineral, however.
Taking iron supplements with an empty stomach enables the best absorption, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Antacids, milk and calcium can interfere with the body's absorption of iron. Avoid taking iron supplements along with milk, calcium supplements, antacids or other heartburn medication. Vitamin C improves the body's ability to absorb nonheme iron found in supplements. Nonheme iron is iron from non-animal sources, such as plant foods. Heme iron is the iron found in blood proteins such as those in red meat, fish or other animal sources.
Iron Food Sources
As you treat your anemia, focus on getting iron from food sources as well as supplements. Food sources of iron include animal products such as liver, beef, turkey, oysters, fish and egg yolks. Animal-based sources of iron provide heme iron, a type of iron more easily absorbed by the body. Plant-based sources of iron, including dry beans and peas, raisins, whole grain bread and fortified cereals, provide nonheme iron. Consume nonheme iron with meat protein or vitamin C to improve your body's absorption of the iron.
Iron Intake and Anemia Prevention
Teenagers, teenage girls and women of childbearing age need higher daily iron intakes to prevent iron deficiency anemia. Increase your intake of iron rich foods and add a supplement if necessary. Male teenagers ages 14 to 18 need 11 milligrams of iron per day, while female teenagers ages 14 to 18 need 15 milligrams of iron per day. Women ages 19 to 50 need 18 milligrams of iron per day, while men ages 19 and over and women ages 51 and over need only 8 milligrams per day. Cigna Health recommends that you take iron supplements with orange juice or vitamin C to increase absorption, and that you do not take them with milk, caffeine, high fiber foods or antacids. If you feel you may have iron deficiency, see your doctor and he will recommend the amount of iron you should take in to treat your deficiency.