Your red blood cells require iron to carry oxygen throughout your body, iron is also necessary to efficiently carry oxygen to your muscles.
Iron deficiency may be as a result of your diet, blood loss (including very heavy menstrual bleeding) or inability to absorb iron effectively. Those who are most at risk include pregnant women or women who are of childbearing age, teenage girls, women who have given birth to a pre-term baby and people with ongoing medical conditions, all of these groups have a greater need for iron.
Gastro-intestinal disorders affect the ability of the body to absorb iron, as it is mostly absorbed in the small intestines any disruption in this area such as regular diarrhoea can result in iron depletion.
Babies and young children will acquire all of their iron from a well balanced diet, breast or formula milk, never give iron supplements to babies or young children unless directed by your doctor, an overdose of iron can be dangerous and cause fatal toxic poisoning. Keep iron supplements in a safe place with your other medications or supplements and out of the reach of children.
If you have a vegetarian diet or do not eat meat regularly then you are more susceptible to iron deficiency anaemia as the iron available in vegetables is often less easily absorbed. Other groups may also benefit from iron supplements. Iron depletion begins slowly, our bodies generally store iron so that when your intake is low your body relies upon this store, and at this stage your blood haemoglobin level will not indicate a lack of iron.
If over a longer period of time you do not increase your iron intake then your store will become very scarce resulting in the more serious iron deficiency anaemia and this will show up in a blood test. If you have iron deficiency anaemia then you should be taking an iron supplement every day.
How do I know if I need it?
A simple blood test will determine if you should be taking an iron supplement. Many women know instinctively if their iron level is low, but should always consult their GP before taking iron supplements.
Some symptoms include fatigue or a general feeling of being tired most of the time, lack of concentration, susceptibility to infection (reduced immune system), bruising easily and feeling cold. Any kind of bodily inflammation may reduce the amount of iron your body is able to absorb, including serious conditions such as arthritis and cancer.
If you are pregnant then iron supplements can be essential, not only do they protect you but the iron will also be absorbed by your baby and stay in his or her system for up to six months. If you are planning to breast feed then you will want to make sure that your stored iron level is sufficient to compensate if you miss a few healthy meals at such a busy time.
Teenage girls need extra iron in their diet when they begin menstruation and trying to persuade them to eat extra leafy green vegetables can be difficult. Iron supplements may also help to improve concentration during these important years.If you belong to any of the above groups and are experiencing any of the possible symptoms then ask your GP for a blood test.
How do I take it?
The supplement will come in different strengths and as a guideline most women of childbearing age need 18 mgs per day. It may be a good idea to time taking your iron supplements with food; vitamin C has been shown to assist with the absorption of iron so a glass of orange juice at the same time will be beneficial. On the other hand, fibre has been shown to reduce the absorption of an iron supplement so you may want to avoid taking it with your bowl of bran at breakfast.
There has been some research to suggest that a lack of Vitamin A will affect your ability to store iron in the body so it may be a good idea to make sure that you are including the Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) of Vitamin A in your diet.
Is there a natural iron supplement available?
Traditional and oriental remedies are available and many people prefer to take a natural iron supplement, but you must check each preparation carefully to make sure that it is suitable for you, some of these products must not be taken when pregnant or trying to conceive, if you have heart disease, diabetes or other medical condition.