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Why Your Body Needs Iron

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The facts about this essential mineral

Fitness fanatics often talk about pumping iron, but really, they should talk about how iron keeps them pumping. Iron is found in every cell of the body and is critical to blood cell production, oxygen flow, digestion and other bodily functions. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States.

How does your body use iron?
Iron is used by the body to make hemoglobin (found in red blood cells) and myoglobin (found in muscle). Hemoglobin and myoglobin are proteins that carry oxygen.

Iron is also a part of many enzymes, which help the body digest food. The mineral is also crucial for healthy hair, skin and nails.

What foods are the best sources of iron, and how much do you need?
There are two types of iron: heme, from meat, poultry and fish, and non-heme, from plants. The body absorbs heme iron two to three times more efficiently than non-heme iron, which is why some vegetarian diets are low in iron.

Good sources of heme iron include lean red meat, eggs, salmon, tuna and poultry. Eating lean meat, fish and poultry along with beans and leafy greens (sources of non-heme iron) will help your body better absorb iron from plant sources. Eating foods rich in Vitamin C also aids with iron absorption.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, recommended iron levels vary by age and gender, with women of menstruating age needing higher levels than men or menopausal and post-menopausal women. A pregnant or breast-feeding woman will need even higher levels of iron.

What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?
If you're feeling consistently tired, short of breath, irritable or dizzy, or if you're suffering from frequent headaches or experiencing unexplained weight loss, talk to your doctor about testing you for iron-deficiency anemia. Other symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include cold hands and feet or brittle hair and nails. Some people with anemia start to crave abnormal substances, such as dirt or clay.

To test for an iron deficiency, your doctor will likely order a hemoglobin test or a hematocrit test, which measures the percentage of red blood cells in your blood.

What causes iron deficiency, and who is susceptible?
Low iron levels are most frequently attributed to rapid growth and blood loss. This means infants and toddlers are particularly at risk, as well as people who frequently donate blood. Women who are menstruating — especially if they have heavy periods — often have low iron levels. Protracted use of antacids can also interfere with iron absorption. Long-distance runners are also prone to iron deficiency.

How do doctors treat iron deficiency?
If your blood tests reveal low iron levels, your doctor might prescribe iron supplements or, at the very least, recommend an iron-rich diet. Iron supplements do cause side effects, including nausea and constipation (especially in pregnant women). Taking a stool softener and eating a diet high in fiber will counteract the constipation.

A note of caution
It is possible for the body to have too much iron. Iron storage disease (or hemochromatosis) also causes fatigue and weight loss, as well as joint and abdominal pain. In addition, iron buildup can result in loss of libido and early menopause. So if you suspect you have an iron deficiency, don't self-diagnose — talk to your primary care physician instead about the proper course of action.

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