Iron is a mineral that our bodies use to create the hemoglobin (Hgb) in red blood cells and muscle cells. It is necessary for transporting oxygen around the body and other important cellular functions.
Low iron levels can lead to iron deficiency anemia and a variety of symptoms, including fatigue (tiredness), shortness of breath, chest pain, and other symptoms. Severe iron-deficiency anemia can lead to heart problems, infections, and problems with growth and development in children.
People at highest risk for iron-deficiency anemia include:
- infants and young children
- women, especially those who are pregnant or recently pregnant
- adults with medical conditions that lead to internal bleeding
The risk of developing iron-deficiency may be reduced by consuming iron-rich foods, including meat (beef, pork, ham, lamb, chicken), liver, fish, and beans. However, foods alone may not provide enough iron to treat iron-deficiency anemia. Iron supplements may be required to increase the daily iron intake to necessary levels.
Iron is likely safe for most people when it is used appropriately. However, it can cause side effects including stomach upset and pain, constipation or diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
Taking iron supplements with food seems to reduce some of these side effects. But food can also reduce how well the body absorbed iron. Iron should be taken on an empty stomach if possible. But if it causes too many side effects, it can be taken with food.
Try to avoid taking iron supplements with foods containing dairy products, coffee, tea, or cereals.
There are different forms of iron used in iron supplements, including
- ferrous sulfate
- ferrous gluconate
- ferrous fumarate
- polysaccharide-iron complex
Some formulations are reported to cause fewer side effects than others, but there is little evidence for this.
Some enteric coated or controlled release iron products might reduce nausea for some people. However, the iron in these products may not be absorbed as readily into the body.
High doses of iron are unsafe, especially for children. Iron is the most common cause of poisoning deaths in children. Doses as low as 60 mg/kg can be fatal. Iron poisoning can cause many serious problems including stomach and intestinal distress, liver failure, dangerously low blood pressure, and death. If you suspect an adult or child has taken more than the recommended amount of iron, call your healthcare professional or the nearest poison control center immediately.