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Why is Iron so important for your health?

Iron plays a crucial role in the production of energy in the body. 1

It mainly exists in complexes bound to proteins and enzymes. 1,2 The majority of iron in the body is present in a substance called haemoglobin, which is found in red blood cells. 1,2 Haemoglobin carries oxygen, required by your brain for concentration and by your muscles for physical energy, around the body. 1,3,4 Iron is also needed to maintain a healthy immune system, helping you to fight off infections. 5

Iron deficiency (ID) is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world. 4 If the iron levels in your body are too low you can become iron deficient. 2 The iron requirements in the body are different for different people, depending on age and gender. 2 Over time, ID can mean that your body makes fewer healthy red blood cells, a condition known as iron deficiency anaemia (IDA). 2 Even mild to moderate IDA can impair cognitive function, ability to work and the immune system.2

Do you feel “more than tired”?

Everyone gets tired from time to time, but if you feel exhausted every day, you may be suffering from fatigue, a symptom of ID. 6

It can be useful to consider your lifestyle and daily stresses and strains to find out what, if anything, makes you feel more awake and energised. If you are experiencing fatigue, you may feel physically and mentally exhausted and lack energy for a number of days each week. 6 There are many causes of fatigue, including ID and IDA. 6,7

Are you getting enough iron?

Balancing the supply and demand for iron in your body is important to maintain good health. 2

Normally your body keeps your iron levels balanced, and the iron that is used by your body every day is replaced by the iron that is absorbed from your food. The iron in your food is absorbed into the bloodstream in your small intestine. The supply and demand for iron in your body can become unbalanced for a number of reasons and this can lead to ID. 2

Choose your food wisely

If you are experiencing symptoms of ID, it is important to consider whether your diet contains enough iron. 2

Eating more iron-rich foods is a simple way to boost your iron levels. Normally you can get all the iron that your body needs from a healthy, balanced diet. 2 Dietary iron occurs in two forms: haem and non-haem. Iron-rich foods include:

Haem iron sources (animal-based)

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Fish

Non-haem iron sources: (plant-based)

  • Cereals
  • Pulses
  • Legumes
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables

If you are vegetarian and are not eating enough iron-rich foods, you may be at an increased risk of ID. 2 Try and eat iron-rich foods more regularly, and combine haem and non-haem sources in the same meal, or add a source of Vitamin C to increase the iron that is absorbed from the food.2

References:

  1. Haas JD, Brownlie T. Iron Deficiency and Reduced Work Capacity: A Critical Review of the Research to Determine a Causal Relationship. J Nutr 2001;131(2):676S-690S.
  2. Abbaspour N, Hurrell R, Kelishadi R. Review on iron and its importance for human health. J Res Med Sci 2014;19(2):164-174.
  3. Lozoff B, Beard J, Connor J, Felt B, Georgieff M. Long-lasting Neural and Behavioural effects of iron-deficiency in infancy. Nutr Rev 2006;64(5 pt 2):S34-S91.
  4. Radlowski EC, Johnson RW. Perinatal iron deficiency and neurocognitive development. Front Hum Neurosci 2013;7:1-11.
  5. Beard JL. Iron biology in Immune Function, Muscle Metabolism and Neuronal Functioning. J Nutr 2001;131(2):568S-580S.
  6. Patterson AJ, Brown WJ, Powers JR, Roberts CK. Iron deficiency, general health and fatigue: Results from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health. Qual Life Res 2000;9(5):491-497.
  7. Mayo Clinic. Fatigue Causes. [online] 2016 [cited 2017 July 26]. Available from: URL: http://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/fatigue/basics/causes/sym-20050894.
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