Why Is Iron Important to Prevent Anemia?

Iron is a nutritional mineral that helps the body produce red blood cells—the cells that carry oxygen through the bloodstream—which is key to feeling strong and healthy. When the body doesn’t get enough iron, it doesn’t produce the number of red blood cells—or hemoglobin—it needs. This can lead to a variety of health problems including low energy, fatigue, dizziness, poor circulation, and more. This condition is called iron deficiency and can eventually lead to iron deficiency anemia (IDA).

IDA is the most common type of anemia and it affects millions of people in the U.S. today – children, men, and especially women. Women of all ages can all suffer from IDA: athletic young women, premenopausal and menopausal women, women who are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant.

What Causes Iron Deficiency or Loss?

IDA has a range of causes including poor diet and nutrition, gastrointestinal disorders, heavy bleeding from menstruation, and pregnancy. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), at least 10% of women of menstruating age (12-49 years) have IDA due to monthly bleeding. The NIH recommends iron supplements to prevent anemia in pregnant women, so as to prevent health problems in both the mother and baby.

Women who are premenopausal or menopausal can require extra iron, as menstruation itself can deplete the body’s iron supply. At least 10% of menstruating age women suffer from iron deficiency. However, iron deficiency does not immediately result in IDA. IDA develops over time; when iron levels in the blood decrease, ferritin—the blood protein that stores iron—is reduced. This limits the formation of hemoglobin or healthy red blood cells resulting in IDA. Anemia causes fatigue, a lack of focus, irritability, and other symptoms because the hemoglobin is not as capable of carrying oxygen to the cells of the body.

Dietary Iron and Iron Supplements for Anemia

Though iron does occur naturally in foods such as beef, turkey, fish (especially shellfish), beans, legumes, and green, leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, often diet is not enough to get all the iron that the body needs. That’s why doctors and health care professionals will recommend iron supplements for anemia. Iron supplements come in different forms including pills or tablets; they also come in several different strengths depending on an individual’s needs.

Multivitamins or multi-mineral tablets containing iron, especially those designed for women, typically provide 18mg of iron which meets The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended Daily Value (DV).

Multivitamins or multimineral tablets containing iron, especially those designed for women, typically provide 18mg of iron which meets The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended Daily Value (DV). While a large portion of the US obtains adequate amounts of iron from their diets, many people, including infants, young children, teenaged girls, pregnant women, and premenopausal women, are at risk of obtaining insufficient amounts from diet alone. For example, the average daily iron intake from foods for premenopausal women between 19 and 50 years old is between 12.5-13.5 mg/day. Women who are prescribed an iron supplement, typically increase their intake amount to 17-19 mg/day – much closer to the target Daily Value amount of 18 mg/day recommended by The Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For children (2-11 years old) and teens (12-19 years old), iron from food alone is usually between 11.5-15 mg/day, while those taking iron supplements increase their intake to around 13.5-16+ mg/day.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of iron for pregnant women is 27 mg/day. It is difficult for pregnant women to get that much iron from diet alone and so they are at significant risk for IDA. That’s why pregnant women are frequently prescribed iron supplements by their obstetricians. Iron supplements may also be recommended for lactating women and women who have heavy periods.

Of course, how much and how often an iron supplement is needed to treat anemia should be evaluated by a doctor or other health care professional. And always consult a doctor before taking any medicines—over the counter or otherwise—when pregnant or when planning a pregnancy.