What Does Iron Do in the Human Body

There is a wealth of scientific and medical terms that refer to iron and how the human body receives, stores, and uses it. These measurements also refer to the body’s lack of iron or low iron which can result in iron deficiency anemia. Ferritin is a protein produced in the metabolism that serves to store iron in the tissues. Measuring ferritin is one way doctors can decide if your iron levels require treatment.

Hemoglobin is another term you’ll hear involving iron: hemoglobin is a protein that carries oxygen in the blood. Iron is a vital component of hemoglobin, and most of the iron contained in adults is found in hemoglobin. Low hemoglobin levels are usually due to iron deficiency. If the iron deficiency is significant enough, it can cause anemia, i.e., a lack of red blood cells and/or hemoglobin, and therefore a lack of oxygen in the bloodstream. Symptoms of anemia include weariness or fatigue, a pale pallor, and shortness of breath.

Treatment for Iron Deficiency Anemia (IDA)

Most people, under most circumstances, receive sufficient iron through their diets. The Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) at the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies established the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron for different age groups and genders. For example, the iron intake for teenage girls between 14-18 years old should be 15 g/day; for boys the same age, 11 g/day. RDA of iron for women 19-50 years old increases to 18 g/day, while men (of all ages), and women older than 51—menopausal women—require about 8 mg/day of iron. The amount of iron for infants and young children varies and should be checked by a pediatrician. Vegetarians require about two times the RDA of iron than meat eaters because iron from meat is more bioavailable—able to be absorbed by the body—than iron from vegetables.

Food sources rich in iron include lean meat, shellfish and fish, beans, and legumes. Vitamin C may also help with the absorption of iron into the bloodstream, and it is often suggested that you take an over-the-counter iron supplement with a glass of orange juice or Vitamin C. Plus there are many iron-fortified breads and cereals available that contain 100% of the DV (Daily Value) of iron for adults.

People who feel lasting symptoms of fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath or paleness might benefit from getting their iron levels tested. Iron deficiency can lead to iron deficiency anemia. Low iron levels can often be treated with a simple multivitamin that includes iron. If iron levels are significantly deficient, doctors will often prescribe iron tablets to bring those iron levels up to the norm. Though iron supplements are available over the counter, i.e., without a doctor’s prescription, it is not advised for people to take an iron supplement without first consulting with your doctor or health care professional. This is especially true for pregnant women of all ages whose iron intake should be 27 g/day, a considerable increase from non-pregnant women. Obstetricians will test the ferritin levels of women when they are first pregnant to see if they need an iron supplement.

Iron Deficiency and Chronic Diseases

People suffering from chronic diseases, including certain types of cancer, ulcers, kidney failure, and inflammatory diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease) may be iron deficient and/or suffer from anemia. This type of anemia is known as anemia of chronic disease or anemia of inflammation. The lack of iron can be due to the underlying disease or condition or there can be side effects from medicines and treatments that affect iron levels. It is complicated to determine if patients with anemia of chronic disease will benefit from treatments for low iron such as iron supplements. This should be determined by a doctor as part of a full course of diagnosis and treatment for the underlying disease or condition.