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Some people do not have enough iron in their bodies. Taking iron supplements can help return their levels of this mineral to a healthy volume.
Iron is a vital mineral with a variety of roles in bodily functioning. It is particularly important in keeping red blood cells healthy.
This article looks at types of iron supplements available, some conditions that might require iron supplements, side effects, dosages, and alternatives to iron supplements.
A healthcare professional may prescribe iron supplements if someone does not have enough iron in their body. People can also purchase over-the-counter iron supplements.
There are numerous iron supplements available, each containing varying amounts of iron. Although they are typically in tablet form, some are also available as a liquid.
Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron more efficiently, so some manufacturers of iron supplements will add vitamin C to the formulation.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the types of iron in supplements include:
- ferrous sulfate
- ferrous gluconate
- ferric citrate
- ferric sulfate
Before taking any supplements, it is best to speak with a pharmacist or healthcare professional.
The most common condition that requires iron supplements is iron deficiency anemia.
People with iron deficiency anemia do not have enough healthy blood cells to carry oxygen to the parts of the body that need it. This is because there is a shortage of iron in the blood.
Taking iron supplements can raise the amount of iron in the body to a healthy level.
It is possible to have an iron deficiency but not iron deficiency anemia. People with an iron deficiency may have the right amount of hemoglobin levels but present with symptoms similar to those of iron deficiency anemia, which include:
An iron deficiency may develop due to:
- Pregnancy: Women who are pregnant may develop an iron deficiency. This is because there is an increased demand for new red blood cells to support the fetus. One systematic review found that taking iron supplements during pregnancy reduced the risk of developing an iron deficiency.
- Blood loss: Blood loss due to heavy menstruation, hernias, or gastrointestinal bleeding may cause an iron deficiency and require iron supplements.
- Cancer: A 2016 study found that iron deficiency was common in people with cancer.
- Diet: Some people who do not eat a diet rich in iron can develop a deficiency.
- Malabsorption: Certain conditions — including celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and chronic pancreatitis — can make it harder for the body to absorb iron.
People may also take iron supplements for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or to enhance sports performance.
Also, a systematic review found that the performance of athletes with a slight iron deficiency improved after taking iron supplements.
Other people may choose to take iron supplements despite not having a medical condition that requires them.
Taking the appropriate dosage of iron is unlikely to cause any side effects.
In some instances, however, people taking iron supplements may experience the following symptoms:
In most cases, these side effects will subside once the body adjusts to the supplement. If someone experiences these side effects and has concerns about them, they can speak to a healthcare professional.
Having too much iron in the body can also be problematic. Hemochromatosis, or iron overload disorder, causes iron to build up in the body. Without treatment, iron overload disorder can damage the body’s organs, including the heart, liver, and pancreas.
If someone takes more than the recommended dosage of iron supplements, they may develop iron poisoning. If someone suspects that they have taken too much iron, they should seek professional medical advice as soon as possible.
The dosage of iron that someone needs can vary depending on their age, sex, and whether or not they are pregnant or lactating.
According to the NIH, the recommended daily amount of iron, in milligrams (mg), is as follows:
|Age||Male||Female||During pregnancy||During lactation|
|0–6 months||0.27 mg*||0.27 mg*|
|7–12 months||11 mg||11 mg|
|1–3 years||7 mg||7 mg|
|4–8 years||10 mg||10 mg|
|9–13 years||8 mg||8 mg|
|14–18 years||11 mg||15 mg||27 mg||10 mg|
|19–50 years||8 mg||18 mg||27 mg||9 mg|
|51+ years||8 mg||8 mg|
If someone requires iron supplements because they have an iron deficiency, a healthcare professional or pharmacist can determine the amount that they should take.
Currently, there are few alternatives to iron supplements.
However, one possible alternative is a diet high in iron-rich foods. Eating iron-rich foods with a good source of vitamin C as part of the same meal can improve the body’s absorption of iron.
The following foods are high in vitamin C:
- red and green peppers
If a person does not wish to take iron supplements, they should discuss other measures with a healthcare professional.
Iron is an important mineral that helps red blood cells carry oxygen to various parts of the body. If someone does not have enough iron in their body, a healthcare professional might recommend eating a diet high in iron or taking iron supplements.
Iron deficiency anemia is one condition that will require iron supplements. People experiencing less severe forms of iron deficiency due to pregnancy or blood loss may also need to take iron supplements.
Taking iron supplements may cause some minor side effects while the body is adjusting. If someone suspects that they have taken too much iron, they should seek professional medical help as soon as possible.
The amount of iron that someone needs per day varies depending on different factors. If someone wishes to take iron supplements, they should speak with a healthcare professional or pharmacist.
Although there are few alternatives to iron supplements, eating a diet rich in high iron foods may help with maintaining optimum levels of this important mineral.