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Iron is a trace mineral needed to make hemoglobin, the protein needed to carry oxygen throughout the body. Hemoglobin gives red blood cells their color, and stores most of the body’s iron supply. Iron is also stored in muscle tissue, and helps supply the muscles with the oxygen needed to make them contract.

Although iron is a trace mineral, it is extremely important, because a deficiency in this nutrient leads to a shortage of red blood cells, a condition known as anemia. Anemic individuals do not have an adequate supply of oxygen in their body, which leaves them tired, pale, and short of breath.

Iron deficiency is the most common deficiency throughout the world. Infants, teenage girls, and women all need to get plenty of iron—babies and teenaged girls need extra iron for growth, and women need extra iron to make up for the blood lost during menstruation. Pregnant and nursing women need extra iron to prevent premature delivery and support the baby’s growth and development. Athletes also need require extra iron to keep the blood and oxygen pumping to their heart and other muscles as they contract.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron is 18 milligrams for males age 11 to 18, but only 10 milligrams for males 19 and older. Women ages 11 to 50 need 18 milligrams each day, but their recommended dosage drops to 10 milligrams at 51 years and up. Women need 30 to 60 milligrams during pregnancy; however, pregnant women should consult their physician about prenatal supplements, which usually contain enough iron to meet the needs of mother and child.

There are many good dietary sources of iron, including spinach, enriched bread, whole grain products, many hot and cold fortified breakfast cereals, prune juice, organ meats, nuts, egg yolks, cheddar cheese, lentils, and chick peas, too name a few. Iron that is found in meat is called heme iron, and is easily absorbed by the body. Iron found in plant foods is called nonheme iron, and is less easily absorbed; however, cooking vegetables, especially acidic vegetables such as tomatoes, in cast-iron pots and pans seems to help with nonheme iron absorption. Iron also seems to be more easily absorbed from cooked rather than raw vegetables.

There are many iron supplements available on the market. Supplements containing carbonyl iron are absorbed best. Other choices include ferrous fumarate, ferrous gluconate, ferrous sulfate, and, for deep muscle injections, iron dextran. Taking a vitamin C supplement along with the iron helps with iron absorption. Iron supplements may cause the stool to turn black or gray, but this is normal, provided there is no blood present (if blood is present, stop taking the supplements and contact your physician).

Many people in modern society could benefit from iron supplementation--iron deficiency is fairly common, especially in diets high in processed convenience foods. Left unchecked, iron deficiency can cause stunted physical and developmental growth in children, and anemia in both children and adults. Signs of severe anemia include pallor, dizziness, shortness of breath, headache, fatigue, and irritability.

Although damage from a single dose of iron is rare, it is possible for iron to build up to toxic levels in the system gradually, especially in men and women that have a condition known as hemochromatosis. Hemochromatosis causes people to store too much iron, and can eventually damage the pancreas, liver, heart, and joints. The damage does not usually occur in adults under age 50; adults over the age of 50, especially men, may want to avoid supplementing with iron. Early signs of iron overdose include gastrointestinal upset, vomiting, pallor, weakness, rapid heartbeat, or collapse. Extreme toxicity can cause convulsions and coma.

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