Iron Nutrient: Its Role in Our Health. Here’s All You Need to Know

Iron Nutrient: Its Role in Our Health. Here’s All You Need to Know

Iron deficiency is a severe public health issue, affecting roughly one-quarter of the world's population. Anaemia is a public health concern in India, affecting 20 to 39.9% of the population. It is particularly prevalent among Indian women - as per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2019-21, 57% of Indian women in the age group of 15-49 years have anaemia. 25% of Indian men in the same age group are anaemic. While iron deficiency remains the most common cause of anaemia, considering the prevalence of the problem, it is critical to recognise additional contributing factors.

But do you know the root cause of iron deficiency anaemia? Understand it  this way - anaemia is caused when iron levels drop in the body. In the early stages, iron shortage may not cause noticeable symptoms as the body uses iron reserves stored in muscles, the liver, the spleen, and bone marrow. However, when these stores deplete and iron levels fall, iron deficiency anaemia develops. This disorder causes a reduction in the size of red blood cells as well as a decrease in haemoglobin concentration. As a result, the circulation becomes less effective in transporting oxygen from the lungs to various tissues throughout the body.

The Importance of Iron for Your Health

Iron nutrient is essential for the human body, performing a variety of important tasks. Its primary function is to transport oxygen to various parts of the body. As a component of haemoglobin, iron allows red blood cells to carry oxygen from the lungs to tissues throughout the body. Without enough iron, haemoglobin synthesis falters, leading to iron deficiency anaemia, characterised by symptoms such as weariness, weakness, shortness of breath, palpitations, and cold hands and feet. Furthermore, iron helps generate energy in the body, promoting the action of enzymes in the electron transport chain, which produces ATP, the body's main energy currency.

Iron is essential for brain function, especially in newborns, children, and teenagers. Inadequate iron levels at these times might cause cognitive deficits and behavioural problems. This vital nutrient also plays an important part in immunological function, promoting immune cell generation and activity, so improving the body's defence against infection.

Furthermore, iron is required for DNA synthesis, cell development, and repair, as well as for maintaining body temperature through thermoregulation. During pregnancy, the requirement for iron increases to promote foetal growth and development, making it essential for both the mother’s and foetal health.

However, iron consumption must be balanced because high levels might cause toxicity. Thus, maintaining adequate levels is critical to general health and well-being.

How much Iron do you need?

The recommended daily intake of iron varies depending on factors such as age, sex, and life stage. Here are the general guidelines for iron intake:

  • Infants:
    0-6 months: 1.5 mg
    6-12 months: 3 mg
  • Children:
    1-3 years: 8 mg
    4-6 years: 11mg
    7-9 years:15 mg
  • Adolescents and Adults:
    Boys (10-12 years): 16 mg
    Boys (13-15 years): 22mg
    Boys (16-18 years): 26 mg
    Girls (10-12 years): 28 mg
    Girls( 13-15 years): 30 mg
    Girls (16-18 years): 32 mg

    Adult Men: 19 mg
    Adult Women: 29 mg
    Pregnant Women: 27 mg
    Lactating Women: 23 mg

It is crucial to remember that certain groups may have higher iron requirements or are more susceptible to iron shortage. These include pregnant and menstruating women, newborns, young children, and those who have specific medical problems that limit iron absorption or utilisation.

Benefits of Iron

Iron is a vital mineral that contributes significantly to general health and well-being. Its advantages extend across a variety of physiological systems in the human body, emphasising its importance in daily functioning.

1. Transports Oxygen:

Iron is essential for oxygen transportation. It is an important component of haemoglobin, a protein crucial for red blood cells, which allows the blood to transport oxygen from the lungs to tissues throughout the body. This mechanism is essential for cellular respiration, a metabolic process by which cells produce energy from oxygen and nutrients. Without sufficient iron, the body cannot manufacture enough haemoglobin, leading to iron deficiency anaemia. The symptoms include weariness, weakness, shortness of breath, and reduced immunological function.

    2. Helps Produce Energy:

    Iron nutrient plays an important function in energy generation. It is an essential component of enzymes engaged in the electron transport chain, a sequence of biochemical events that take place within mitochondria, the energy-producing organelles of cells. These enzymes help to transport electrons and produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the body's principal energy currency.

    Thus, enough iron levels are required to sustain healthy energy levels while also supporting physical activity and metabolic activities.

      3. Critical for Cognitive Function:

      Iron is critical for cognitive function and brain development, especially throughout infancy, youth, and adolescence. Iron deficiency during these important phases might affect cognitive capacities, learning, and behavioural results, potentially resulting in long-term complications.

      Iron is involved in the manufacture of neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin, which are important for mood control, cognition, and emotional well-being.

        4. Necessary for Immune Health:

        Iron is necessary for immunological function. It promotes the growth and activity of immune cells, such as lymphocytes and macrophages, which are in charge of detecting and neutralising pathogens including bacteria, viruses, and other foreign invaders. Iron deficiency can affect immune function, rendering people more vulnerable to infections and reducing the body's capacity to develop an efficient immunological response.

          5. Helps Synthesise DNA:

          Iron also helps synthesise DNA, the genetic material found in all cells, which is required for cell development, repair, and replication. 

          6. Regulates Body Temperature:

          Iron helps regulate body temperature by participating in thermoregulation, which is the process by which the body keeps its core temperature within a restricted range.

          7. Helps in the Development & Growth of Foetus:

          During pregnancy, the requirement for iron nutrient increases to promote foetal growth and development, making it critical for both maternal and foetal health. Iron deficiency in pregnant women can result in issues such as premature birth, low birth weight, and developmental impairments in the child.

          Iron is an essential vitamin with several health advantages. It contributes to a variety of physiological activities, including oxygen delivery and energy synthesis as well as cognitive function and immunological support.

          Maintaining proper iron levels through a balanced diet, supplementation when needed, and frequent monitoring is critical for sustaining general health and well-being throughout the life cycle. 

          Foods rich in Iron 

          Several foods are high in iron, including:

          1. Red Meat:

          Beef, lamb, and pig are good sources of heme iron, which the body absorbs more efficiently than non-heme iron but their consumption should be in restricted portions.

          2. Fish and Seafood:

          Iron-rich fish include mackerel and tuna.

          3. Legumes:

          Iron-rich plant foods include beans, lentils, chickpeas. They also include nutrients such as fibre, protein, and folate.

          4. Tofu and Soy Products:

          Tofu and tempeh (made by fermenting soybean) are high in iron, making them good choices for vegetarians and vegans.

          5. Nuts and Seeds:

          Iron-rich foods include pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds,  nuts such as almonds and cashews, and pine nuts.

          6. Fortified Foods:

          Certain foods, such as morning cereals, bread, and pasta, have been fortified with iron. To identify fortified items, check the nutrition labels.

          7. Dark Leafy Greens:

          Spinach, kale, Swiss chard and other dark leafy greens are high in iron, although the content may be lower than in heme iron sources.

            8. Quinoa & oats:

            These gluten-free grains are high in protein and iron, making them an important component of a well-balanced diet.

            9. Dried fruit:

            Dried apricots, raisins, prunes, and figs are concentrated sources of iron and can be enjoyed as snacks or added to meals.

            Use of Iron Supplements  

            Iron supplements are used to treat or prevent iron deficiency anaemia, characterised by low iron levels in the blood. Here are some frequent reasons for taking iron supplements.

            1. Treating Iron Deficiency Anaemia:

            Iron supplements are prescribed when dietary intake alone is insufficient to meet the body's iron requirements or when iron absorption is impaired by gastrointestinal disorders or chronic blood loss (eg, during heavy menstrual periods and gastrointestinal bleeding). Iron deficiency anaemia can cause weariness, weakness, shortness of breath, and pale complexion. 

            2. Pregnancy:

            Pregnant women frequently require iron supplements to meet the increased iron requirements for maternal red blood cell bulk, placental development, and foetal growth. Iron deficiency during pregnancy raises the risk of problems including preterm delivery and low birth weight.

            3. Menstrual Blood Loss:

            Women who have excessive menstrual bleeding may lose a lot of iron each month, resulting in iron insufficiency over time. Iron supplements can help restore iron reserves and prevent or treat iron deficiency anaemia in these people. 

            4. Chronic Illness or Blood Loss:

            Certain medical problems, such as gastrointestinal disorders (e.g., inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease) or chronic illnesses (e.g., chronic kidney disease), can impair iron absorption or cause iron loss, needing supplementation. Similarly, those who routinely donate blood or have had surgery or an injury that causes blood loss may need iron supplements to rebuild their iron reserves.

            5. Athletic Performance:

            Some athletes, particularly endurance athletes, may utilise iron supplements to boost iron levels and improve oxygen transport to muscles, resulting in improved performance and less tiredness. However, iron supplementation for performance improvement should be done with caution and under medical supervision, since excessive iron consumption might have negative consequences.

            It is critical to take iron supplements under the supervision of a healthcare practitioner as excessive iron consumption might result in toxicity and negative side effects. Iron supplements are available in a variety of forms, including ferrous sulphate, ferrous gluconate, and ferrous fumarate, and can be used orally in tablet, pill, or liquid form. Iron supplements are frequently taken with vitamin C-rich meals or beverages to improve absorption, and they should be kept separate from calcium-rich foods or supplements since calcium can hinder iron absorption. If you are looking for the best iron tablets, Steadfast’s Iron can be your ideal pick.  

            Who should avoid Iron Supplementation? 

            Iron supplementation is commonly used to treat iron deficiency anaemia and other conditions characterised by low iron levels. However, it is not appropriate for everyone and may offer hazards to certain persons. Individuals who should typically avoid iron supplements include:

            1. Individuals with Hemochromatosis:

            This is a hereditary disorder that causes increased iron absorption from the diet. Supplementing with iron can cause iron excess, which can harm organs such as the liver, heart, and pancreas.

            2. People with Haemolytic Anaemia:

            This kind of anaemia is characterised by the early breakdown of red blood cells. Adding extra iron might worsen the disease, resulting in iron overload.

            3. People with Specific Types of Thalassemia:

            Some types of thalassemia, particularly those that need regular blood transfusions, can cause iron excess. In certain circumstances, taking iron supplements might be dangerous.

            4. Patients with Chronic Liver illness:

            Liver illness can limit the body's capacity to process and retain iron effectively. Iron supplementation may exacerbate liver damage in these patients.

            5. People with active infections:

            Iron can stimulate the development of some germs and diseases. During an active infection, iron supplementation may help the illness advance.

            6. People with Unexplained Anaemia:

            Before beginning iron supplements, it is critical to identify the reason for the anaemia. If the anaemia is not caused by iron deficiency, supplementing may be ineffective and hazardous.

            Risks associated with Iron Supplementation 

            Iron supplementation, while effective for treating iron-deficient anaemia, entails various hazards that must be carefully considered. One main concern is iron overload, which occurs when too much iron accumulates in the body's tissues and organs, resulting in disorders like hemosiderosis and hemochromatosis. This can cause substantial harm to the liver, heart, and pancreas, raising the risk of liver disease, heart disease, and diabetes. Constipation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and stomach discomfort are among the most prevalent gastrointestinal disorders. 

            Furthermore, iron supplements might impair the absorption and efficacy of some drugs, such as antibiotics and thyroid hormone replacement therapy, complicating treatment plans. Excess iron can produce free radicals, which cause oxidative stress and cellular damage, increasing the risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease and cancer. Furthermore, iron can increase the growth of some germs, thereby aggravating diseases. As a result, it is important to use iron supplements under medical supervision to minimise potential consequences and guarantee they are appropriate based on individual health requirements.

            Iron sufficiency is critical for overall health because iron is a necessary component of haemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood. To obtain and maintain optimal iron levels, consume a well-balanced diet rich in iron-containing foods. These foods include meat, chicken, fish, beans, lentils, tofu, spinach, and fortified cereals. It is also advantageous to combine iron-rich meals with vitamin C sources, such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, and bell peppers, to improve iron absorption.


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