While many minerals are important for good health, without iron, nothing in the world could live.
Not humans, not plants, nothing!
Iron is the most abundant and readily available mineral on earth and is present in many of the enzymes and proteins that are involved in keeping the body healthy. Fortunately for us, our bodies reuse, or conserve, approximately 90% of its available iron each day. The remaining 10% is, however, eliminated and it is this 10% that must be replenished. Otherwise, the body runs the risk of developing an iron deficiency, which is a contributing factor to many health problems.
The major role of iron in the body is to assist in oxygen transport.
Iron is found in the blood's hemoglobin, a protein inside red blood cells that helps move oxygen out of the lungs so that it can be carried to the body parts that require it. Even people with little knowledge of how the body works generally realize, at some level, that muscles, tissues and organs all need oxygen.
The immune system needs iron too. Iron also assists with metabolism and it's crucial in body's ability to regulate temperature.
One interesting fact about iron is that it has the ability to regulate how much of itself the body absorbs. When current iron levels are sufficient, no iron is absorbed. And that's good because too much can cause toxicity. When levels start to decrease, the body shifts into an iron absorption mode.
Iron is present in both mother's milk and formula, but infants consume a much higher percentage of iron when they are breastfed. Infants that are not breastfed should be given iron fortified formula and/or cereal or an iron supplement.
Sources of Iron
Hemoglobin contains two different types of iron: heme iron and non-heme iron. The main difference between the two is the absorption capability. The body much more easily absorbs heme iron than non-heme. Absorption rates of non-heme iron can be improved by including meat, fish and Vitamin C in the diet.
Another difference is in the sources of these two types of iron.
Organ meats such as liver, heart and kidneys and lean beef, fish, seafood, sardines, anchovies and poultry are food sources that are rich in heme iron while plant sources provide much of the body's non-heme iron. Some good sources include spinach, oat bran, apricots, kidney beans, hazelnuts, almonds, cashews, whole meal bread, eggs, soy products and fortified cereals.
Many other foods are commonly enriched with iron, and this is important because most processed foods lose their natural iron supply. Pasta, bread made with refined flour, white rice and ready-to-eat cereals fall into this last category.
Women over age 50 and all older men need to get 8 mg of iron/day. Any woman who has not yet started menopause needs more, 18 mg/day, compensate for the blood that is lost during a woman's monthly menstrual cycle. Women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant should also get more iron.
Symptoms of an Iron Deficiency
Several situations can possibly lead to an iron deficiency. Some people's bodies are simply not able to absorb it properly. An iron deficiency could also result from a significant loss of blood whether from a wound or because of a woman's menstrual cycle. Probably the most common reason for an iron deficiency is diet lacking this valuable mineral. Very simply, many people do not consume adequate quantities of iron-rich foods.
One of the most notable symptoms of an iron deficiency is anemia. Its symptoms include fatigue, reduced mental capacity, insomnia, headaches, loss of appetite and an inability to maintain proper body temperature. In some people, lack of this important dietary mineral can contribute to the development of painful cracks at the corners of the mouth, a condition known as Angular Cheilitis. An iron deficiency also diminishes the capacity of the immune system.
Iron and Seniors
Most people over 55 or so have little need for an iron supplement as they tend to get all they need from their diet, and since the body tends to hold on to its iron. As a result, many daily mulitivitamin preparations come as either an over 55 and under 55 preparation.
The best multivitamin normally will contain iron. There are also specific iron supplements. However, be cautious as too much iron can cause constipation.