“Tired? Maybe you need more iron.”
If you’ve heard those words before, you’re not alone. Iron supplements have been touted as a fatigue fighter since the 1940s, when the US government first promoted them to the American public as key to good health. Today, iron still features prominently in the USDA’s My Plate school program, and it comes up all the time in discussions of diet, energy and women’s health.
But as with any supplement, iron isn’t right for everyone. Age, gender, genetics, diet and a long list of other factors can affect your body’s need for iron supplementation—and getting it wrong can have consequences for your health.
So how do you know if an iron tablet should be part of your daily routine? By asking the experts. Here, our nutrition professionals have put their heads together to give you the low-down on this celebrity supplement: Whether you’re likely to need it, how to know for sure and—if you do add iron to your regimen—how to get the most from it.
But first: What does iron do, exactly?
Your body uses iron to make hemoglobin, the special protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to the other parts of the body, where it keeps your cells’ power generators humming.
When you’re low on iron, your body won’t make enough hemoglobin to carry out that crucial work, which may lead to fatigue, headaches, poor concentration, dizziness and feelings of weakness—a condition known as iron deficiency anemia (IDA). So if you’re feeling sluggish, does that mean you should you be gobbling down iron supplements? Maybe, maybe not.
The reality is most of us get plenty of iron from our diets, meaning low iron might not be behind your lack of energy. What’s more, if you are getting enough iron from your food, an iron supplement might actually push you over the daily recommended intake. That could lead to a whole other set of health effects, including digestive issues and reduced absorption of nutrients like zinc.
So how do you know if you’re low on iron? By looking at a number of factors.
How do you know if you’re at risk of low iron?
Different people need different amounts of iron to stay healthy. Men aged 19+ need about 8mg of iron per day, according to the NIH, while women aged 19-50 need about 18mg (this drops to 8mg daily after menopause).
While most of us get these amounts—or more—from our food, a significant minority of people, primarily women, fall short for a number of reasons. You may be iron deficient if:
- You’re pregnant: It takes a lot to build a baby—including hemoglobin. To ensure your body has the material it needs to support your baby’s development and keep it well supplied with oxygen, an iron supplements is often recommended throughout pregnancy;
- You get heavy periods: This can deplete your body’s iron stores on a regular basis;
- You’ve lost blood from a health condition like ulcers or cancer—or because you donate blood frequently. Your body may need some extra iron to help it restock;
- You have a disorder that impacts iron: There are a number of chronic health issues that can impact your body’s ability to absorb or retain iron (ask your doctor about these);
- You’re taking certain drugs: Some medications interfere with iron absorption, preventing your body from getting what it needs from your food;
- You have a low-iron diet: Many foods—including red meat, pork, poultry, seafood, peas, beans, lentils, whole wheat bread, brown rice, eggs, tofu, spinach, raisins and apricots—are rich in iron, but not everyone gets enough of these to reach their recommended daily intake. This is often the case with vegans and vegetarians.
How do you know for sure?
While these factors will put you at risk of low iron—and symptoms like fatigue and weakness may offer another clue—the only way to know for sure is to talk to your doctor. They may recommend a blood test to determine your iron levels with precision, and recommend you supplement as needed.
How do you get the most from your iron supplement?
If it turns out you do need an iron supplement, there are things you can do to make sure you’re getting as much nutrition from it as possible:
- Don’t take it with calcium: Calcium supplements and calcium-rich foods like milk can get in the way of iron absorption, so avoid taking them together;
- Don’t wash it down with coffee: The polyphenols in coffee and tea can similarly interfere with iron absorption, so try to go easy on them while supplementing—and definitely don’t wash down your capsule with a cup of Joe;
- Get a helping hand from OJ: Vitamin C helps your body absorb iron, so taking your supplement with a glass of orange juice may actually augment its effects;
- Consider an Iron/vitamin C combo: If you don’t want to drink OJ every day, an iron supplement that includes vitamin C can also be a great solution.
If iron is right for you, it may just be one part of a larger supplement plan tailored to your diet and health goals. To learn more about the nutrients that would fit your needs, try taking our nutrition assessment. It takes about five minutes, and will design a daily plan to fit your lifestyle.
Gabby is a nutritionist with a master’s degree in strategic communications. She loves using her nutrition-fluency with storytelling to encourage positive change. Before Persona, she worked at a mental health clinic helping clients manage stress, anxiety and other mental health issues through diet.
Gabby is just one of Persona’s team of qualified nutritionists. Do you have questions about nutrition? Reach out. Our experts would love to help.