Iron is an essential mineral as it helps the blood make haemoglobin, which carries oxygen to all the body's cells and carries carbon dioxide back to the lungs. The body also needs it to make myoglobin, which stores oxygen in muscles to produce collagen and elastin for connective tissue, to produce certain neurotransmitters in the brain, and to form skin and nails. Iron has antioxidant properties and helps us to maintain our immune system.
There are two types of dietary iron – haem iron (occurs in poultry, meat and seafood) and non-haem iron (vegetables, fruit, grains, seeds and eggs). The latter type is not easily absorbed into the body, however, eating a vitamin C rich food at the same time helps to increase the uptake.
Iron deficiency can lead to symptoms such as breathlessness, dizziness, fatigue, brittle nails, cracks in the corners of the mouth, anaemia, constipation, headaches, poor appetite and behavioural problems. Young children, adolescents, pregnant women and women in their menstruating years are the people most likely to become anaemic due to iron deficiency. In fact, it is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world. Iron supplements are available as liquid, tablets and capsules – the best supplements combine ferrous amino acid chelate or ferrous phosphate with Vitamin C. Always seek professional advice if you think you might be deficient in iron, and take a blood test.
One in 12 reproductive-age women and teenage girls in Australia have a biochemical iron deficiency, but less than a quarter of these women are anaemic. Anaemia only occurs toward the end of a process of falling iron stores, which in some cases may have been in progress for many years. (Australian Iron Status Advisory Board)
Although iron is so vital, it is important not to have too much as it can oxidise and cause free radical damage to cells. Our body accommodates this by being thrifty with iron. As the iron-containing red blood cells die (every 120 days) the iron is recycled. Iron and zinc compete in the body so excess iron may cause a zinc deficiency. There are many other nutrients that could be responsible for anaemia (apart from iron) so it is important to have a blood test to confirm that it is actually iron that is deficient. There are also several conditions, which are caused by excessive iron.
Note: it is important not to prescribe vitamin C for someone with excessive iron, as it helps it to be absorbed into the bloodstream.
Complementary Healthcare Council
For more information, take a look through "Help Yourself: an A-Z of natural cures for common complaints" by Mim Beim and Jan Castorina. It's published by Doubleday and is available through all good bookstores.