Iron, an essential mineral for our body
Published: 20 December, 2018 - Updated: 1 March, 2021 | 4'
Iron is an essential mineral that plays basic roles in the body. Iron makes possible the formation of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that allows oxygen to be transported to the tissues.
Iron and blood hemoglobin.
Iron is also used to replenish reserves and restore hemoglobin concentrations to normal levels, thus both preventing and treating the symptoms that arise. Its benefits include improved quality of life, physical performance, cell oxygenation, cognitive function and immune function.
Iron deficiency and health
Some groups of people are more likely to suffer from iron deficiency. For example, it is common during menstruation in women with excessive bleeding; also in pregnant women (since the body takes more iron), children and adolescents.
In Spain, according to the Spanish Society of Hematology and Hemotherapy (SEHH), 20% of women of fertile age, 40% of pregnant women and 15% of adolescents have iron deficiency anemia. Likewise, the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that iron deficiency anemia affects 24.8% of the world population, the most affected groups being children and women.
What is iron deficiency anemia?
The World Health Organization (WHO), defines as hemoglobin concentration below 13 g/dL in adult men and 12 g/dL in non-pregnant adult women. Factors that lead to iron deficiency anemia are: poor iron diet, micronutrients and vitamins (vitamins B12, A, D folate); the use of drugs and foods that block their absorption; overweight and obesity; malnutrition; athletes, especially adolescents; blood loss; pregnancy and newborns; menstrual disorders, etc.
How much iron do I need to take?
Our body loses an average of 0.5 to 1 milligram per day in adult men and 0.7 to 2 milligrams in women of fertile age.
Iron is lost through the peeling of the skin, urine and feces, among other functions for which the body uses this nutrient. Therefore, the recommended daily amount is between 10 and 18 mg per day. The requirements of this nutrient increase in some periods of life: during the fertile period of women, pregnancy, breastfeeding (due to the increased demand for iron) and in periods of growth (adolescence).
What is anemia
The most common anemia is iron deficiency anemia, which is caused when the body does not have enough iron. This leads to a decrease in hemoglobin concentration and in the ability to carry oxygen in the blood. Symptoms of anemia usually include: tiredness, fatigue, weakness, irritability, pallor, lack of appetite, nausea, diarrhea, mouth ulcers and hair loss.
Iron deficiency anemia
Iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world and represents the first cause of anemia in childhood. In addition to iron, vitamin B12 and folic acid are also needed to produce red blood cells. Vitamin B12 is found in meat and green vegetables, while folic acid is found mainly in vegetables. Of course, it is necessary to take special care of the diet and to eat foods rich in this element regularly.
How we supply iron to the body
One of the foods richest in iron is red meat; it is also found in oily fish, chicken and turkey thighs and wings, in some kinds of dried fruits, seeds, dark green vegetables such as spinach, some cereals, in the clams, oysters, mussels, fish, legumes (mainly lentils, beans and chickpeas) and in oleaginous nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts.
Foods rich in iron and absorption
In addition, as part of a healthy and balanced diet, iron absorption is improved by eating fruits rich in Vitamin C. Fructose is also present in fruits, a natural sugar that is easily assimilated and helps its absorption.
As we have seen before, when there are some periods in which iron levels decrease, a diet rich in iron may not be enough to keep optimal iron levels, so in these cases an iron supplement may be needed.
The World Health Organization (WHO) in its global framework of public health measures to deal with iron deficiency and anemia in the world includes the intake of iron-rich foods, improving iron absorption levels and iron supplementation to improve nutritional status.
There are different supplements of this molecule on the market. Among them it is recommended those in which the iron is easily absorbed by the organism (specifically the ferric forms) and those supplements which are rich in vitamins, fruits, vegetables and/or cereals.
How we treat anemia
For the treatment of iron deficiency anemia, the aims are to address the underlying cause, treat the anemia,, and replenish iron stores. To this end, along with a balanced diet, oral agents are usually chosen because of their ease of use, low rate of side effects, and efficacy. There are two main focuses for their use: a) to treat or prevent nutritional deficiency and, b) to reduce the risk of deficiency disease and promote optimal health.
How the iron is absorbed by the body
Absorption takes place only in the duodenum and jejunum (small intestine). Most of the iron taken in food is in the ferric form and requires to be reduced to the ferrous form for absorption through the intestine. The factors that affect iron absorption in the intestine include: the form and its condition within the food, the pH of the intestinal lumen, the presence or lack of chelating agents in the food ("chelate" means " to sequester" and prevent its absorption, e.g. tea, spinach, green apple), and the levels of different iron transporters present from the intestine to the blood.
The astringent action of the most commonly used preparations so far, usually produce gastrointestinal irritation and abdominal pain with symptoms of nausea and sickness, due to the fact that this kind of salts are dissolved in the intestinal lumen, allowing the iron to come into contact with the mucosa, which creates free radicals with an irritating and harmful effect on the tissue. These symptoms can lead to giving up the therapy. Therefore, different supplement options have been developed to improve absorption, reducing the side effects with the aim of improving the iron reserves.
- Sistema de Información Nutricional sobre Vitaminas y Minerales (VMNIS): Prevalencia mundial de la anemia y número de personas afectadas. OMS
- Carencia de micronutrientes. OMS
- El 20% de las mujeres en edad fértil, el 40% de las gestantes y el 15% de los adolescentes tienen anemia ferropénica en España. Sociedad Española de Hematología y Hemoterapia.
- Jeffery L. Miller. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med 2013.