Iron is a mineral that’s vital to your health. All of your cells contain some iron, but most of the iron in your body is in your red blood cells. Red blood cells transport oxygen from your lungs to the organs and tissues throughout your body.
Iron has a role in creating energy from nutrients. It also contributes to the transmission of nerve impulses — the signals that coordinate the actions of different parts of your body. If you have more iron than is needed, it’s stored in your body for future use.
The average American gets all the iron they need from the food they eat. But there are certain situations and conditions that may make it necessary to add supplemental iron to your diet.
1. You Have Iron Deficiency Anemia
If you have iron deficiency anemia, there’s not enough iron in your body for your red blood cells to effectively provide oxygen to your cells and tissues.
Symptoms of anemia include:
- difficulty concentrating
Iron deficiency anemia is the most common form of anemia in the United States. Almost five million Americans have it.
Common causes of anemia include:
- menstruation, particularly if flow is heavy or prolonged
- peptic ulcer disease
- cancer in the digestive tract
- blood loss from trauma or blood donation
- gastrointestinal bleeding from prolonged use of medications such as aspirin and ibuprofen
2. You’re Pregnant
Women who aren’t pregnant or nursing need to15-18 mg of iron daily. Women who are pregnant need significantly more iron. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of iron for pregnant women is 27 mg daily.
3. You Have an Infant
Babies build stores of excess iron from their mothers while they’re in the womb. These stores are needed during their first six months of life when they’re nursing. This is because their mother’s milk is doesn’t contain enough iron.
Most pediatricians recommend using a formula that’s fortified with iron if you bottle-feed your baby. Premature babies who haven’t had time to build their iron stores are likely to need supplemental iron as well. Always check with your pediatrician before supplementing your infant with iron.
4. You Menstruate
Menstruation depletes iron stores. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 9 percent of women and girls between 12-49 have an iron deficiency.
- Young children are more likely to be low in iron because of their rapid growth. 14 percent of children under the age of three don’t get enough iron.
- Iron deficiency and anemia have been associated with reduced academic performance and place children at risk of cognitive delays.
Some research indicates that the incidence of anemia is influenced by ethnicity. Fully 19 percent of African-American and Mexican-American Women are anemic, compared to 9 to 12 percent of non-Hispanic white women.
5. You Exercise
People who do regular intense exercise may need up to 30 percent more iron than less active adults, according to the NIH. The reason for this isn’t clear. One theory is that iron cycles through the body more rapidly in people who exercise vigorously.
6. You Experience Regular Blood Loss
People who experience excessive blood loss frequently need supplemental iron. Regular blood donors and people who have gastrointestinal bleeding because of medications or conditions such as ulcers and cancer are at risk. Donating blood on a regular basis isn’t recommended if you’re consistently low in iron.
7. You’re On Dialysis
Many people who are on kidney dialysis need extra iron. This is because you lose a small amount of blood during dialysis. Dialysis diets also often limit iron intake. Some medications that people on dialysis take can use up iron or interfere with the body’s ability to absorb it.
8. You Take Iron-Depleting Medications
Certain medications can interfere with your body’s ability to absorb iron. These include over-the-counter antacids and some antibiotics, like quinolones and tetracyclines. Other medications that can deplete your iron include:
- ranitidine and omeprazole (for ulcers, heartburn, and other stomach problems)
- angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors (for high blood pressure)
- colestipol and cholestyramine (cholesterol-lowering bile acid sequestrants)
9. You Have ADHD
Research has shown that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may benefit from taking iron supplements. In one study, 89 percent of children who had ADHD were low on iron, compared to just 18 percent of children who didn’t have the disorder.
10. You Have ACE Inhibitor-Associated Cough
Doctors prescribe ACE inhibitors to treat a number of conditions, including:
- heart disease
- high blood pressure
- type 2 diabetes
- mild kidney disease
They may even help prevent kidney disease in those with type 2 diabetes.
An annoying, dry cough is a common side effect of the medication. Research shows that iron supplements may significantly reduce the frequency of coughing in people who take ACE inhibitors.
Most people respond well to taking iron supplements, which are available in capsules and intravenously.
Ideally, you should take iron supplements on an empty stomach because food can decrease the amount of iron your body absorbs. Be sure to take only the recommended dose. Too much iron can be toxic, especially for children.
Talk to your doctor to find out how long you need to take an iron supplement.