If you’re still curious about the importance of iron, take into consideration that “Iron Man” is one of the biggest comic superheroes of this generation and also the name of a popular song by venerable rocker Ozzy Osbourne, and that Iron Man competitions are held every year to test humans’ ability to be resilient and stand up to the greatest adversities.
You don’t often get that much cultural significance for magnesium or potassium, which just goes to show how recognized iron is nowadays as an essential component of living your best life.
While it’s not always understood, it’s important not to overlook what iron provides for the body. It can play a tremendous role in health and well-being—but the first step is having a sufficient amount of iron in the bloodstream, which often comes from making the right diet choices.
Understanding what iron is and why it matters
Iron is an essential mineral that the body needs to function properly. While some people may think of the common metal when hearing the term, dietary iron is actually a molecular form of the element, and one that influences many aspects of human health.
First and foremost, iron is the key component in producing hemoglobin, a type of protein that is responsible for moving oxygen from the lungs throughout the tissues of the body. If hemoglobin levels are too low, the body may not be able to get enough oxygen, which can lead to a wide range of health problems like fatigue and weakness (see the full list below).
In addition to creating hemoglobin, iron also performs several additional functions within the body, including:
- Producing myoglobin, another type of protein that ensures the muscles of the body receive the oxygen they require for proper performance.
- Impacting metabolism by influencing the way that the body transitions carbohydrates into the fuel and energy needed to perform basic daily activities.
- Synthesizing hormones and tissues—without proper iron levels, the body can struggle to heal and strengthen muscles, which is especially important in the growth and development of young children.
- Encouraging proper cell function—without iron, blood cells and other cells within the body can be less healthy and actually grow weak.
The growing problem of iron deficiency
Lack of proper hemoglobin levels and the fatigue it can trigger can lead to a huge range of issues within the body—and the problem is growing more and more prevalent. In fact, iron deficiencies today are the most common type of nutritional deficiency, with roughly 10 percent of women diagnosed with the condition.
Iron deficiency can also lead to anemia, which can be left untreated and undiagnosed for years. Those with the issue might assume they’re feeling bad for other reasons and fail to find out that low iron is actually the problem. Some of the common symptoms of anemia can include:
- General fatigue, from mild to severe in nature
- Overall weakness
- Pale skin
- Dizzy feelings
- Difficulty concentrating
- Cold hands and feet
- Irregular heart rates
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty breathing
- Painful headaches
- Tongue soreness
- Tingling in the legs or other extremities
Any of these could be a sign of poor iron levels in the body, especially if in combination. There are several different factors that can cause iron deficiency to occur, including:
Inability to absorb the mineral
There are some medical disorders that can make it harder for the intestines to absorb iron from food, easily leading to an iron deficiency no matter how much is ingested.
One of the most common causes of iron deficiency is simple nutritional deficiency. Eating a poor diet can significantly impact overall levels, but making healthier choices is the best way to promote stronger iron intake and overall nutrition.
Blood loss during childbirth, or pregnancy in general, can lead to a lower than normal level of iron in the body. In the latter case, the unborn baby’s absorption of nutrients through the mother can also lead to potential depletion of essential minerals and nutrients, so counteracting this imbalance is important.
Heavy menstrual bleeding could also trigger anemia in women. This is especially problematic if poor diet is present as well, as this reduces the amount of iron that is naturally found in the body already.
These of course aren’t the only causes, but some of the most common. In any case, it’s important to understand that iron deficiency can’t be self-diagnosed, but talking to a medical professional can help determine whether or not an issue is present that needs to be dealt with—usually a simple blood test can provide more information.
How to know if more iron intake is needed
In general, some groups of people are more susceptible to iron deficiency than others. These can include:
- Pregnant women or women who may become pregnant
- Anyone with a continually poor diet
- Infants and children
- Vegetarians or vegans that don’t actively increase iron intake (a lot of iron is found in meat)
Taking steps to increase iron intake is important for those who fall into these groups, and doing so as early as possible can help to prevent iron deficiency from becoming an issue at all.
Natural sources of iron to consider
There are numerous foods that are naturally rich in iron, and making sure that they’re an integral component of your diet is the first step towards preventing iron deficiency–related issues while also maintaining maximum health and wellness. These natural sources of iron include:
- Red meat
- Dried fruits
- Dark green vegetables
- Leafy greens
- Beans and other legumes (in particular soybeans)
In addition to these foods, cereals, pastas, and other grains are often iron-fortified, though they may not be an option for those eating Paleo or gluten-free diets.
Additionally, vitamin C can have a direct impact on the body’s absorption of iron since it helps increase intake of the mineral for anyone who has trouble doing so on their own.
Fiber can also help with iron absorption. A diet high in fiber can help slow down the rate at which food moves through the digestive tract. This allows the intestines more time to absorb the various nutrients present, including iron. Combining vitamin C and fiber with a healthy diet rich in the foods that are naturally high in iron can make deficiencies and anemia much easier to beat.
A word on iron supplements
While a healthy diet is the foundation of proper iron intake, some people simply can’t get the adequate amounts needed for good health. Whether it’s a health issue that blocks proper absorption, food allergies, or some other related issue, those that still can’t obtain adequate levels of the mineral through the steps listed above may need to consider iron supplements to help their cause.
Many of today’s supplements can be sourced naturally, and there are even organic, plant-based iron supplements for those who are strict vegetarians or vegans. Whether it’s a basic iron supplement or one of the numerous multivitamins on the market, adding these supplements into your everyday routine can help increase stores of iron and also vitamin C, which should improve numbers over time.
The key to finding success with multivitamins, however, is twofold. First, ensure that they are formulated specifically for your needs. For example, women require a different multivitamin than men, and pregnant women also need prenatal vitamins. Men over forty are said to require special vitamins as well. Always check the label to ensure that your choice provides proper levels of both vitamin C and iron before buying.
Iron plays a key role in the health and well-being of everyone—men, women, and children—but it’s often an overlooked mineral. Using the tips above, pay attention to your nutritional intake and any questionable symptoms so you can be on your way to becoming your own Iron Man or Iron Woman.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho