Iron – a double-edged sword

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One nutrient that has managed to firmly entrench itself in mainstream medical practice is iron. Even doctors who view the concept of nutritional supplementation with some scepticism are generally comfortable about firing off prescriptions for this blood-building mineral. Yet, while iron undoubtedly has the ability to do much good in the body, taking it is not without risk: iron therapy quite often gives rise to tummy trouble and might even increase the risk of certain conditions including heart disease. Clearly, this most renowned of nutrients has both potential benefits and pitfalls for the body. This week, I thought I’d take a closer look at the double-edged sword that is iron.

Iron is essential for the manufacture of a substance called haemoglobin. Contained within the red blood cells, haemoglobin is responsible for transporting oxygen to the tissues where it sparks life into the body’s metabolic processes. If haemoglobin levels fall low in the body ” the medical term for which is anaemia – fatigue, reduced capacity for exercise and low mood are often the result. Anaemia can be caused by a myriad of underlying factors, but iron deficiency is the most common. Iron is also an essential ingredient in the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) ” the basic currency of energy in the body. Because of this, iron deficiency can sap vital energy even in the absence of anaemia. Iron deficiency is more common in vegetarians, during pregnancy and in women prone to heavy periods (significant quantities of iron are lost in the menstrual blood).

While iron remains a popular supplement for as a tonic and energy booster, it does need to be handled with some care. Iron is what is known as an oxidising agent, having quite the opposite effect of antioxidant nutrients such as vitamins C and E which have disease-protective properties. Japanese research published last year suggested that high doses of iron induced changes which, at least theoretically, would increase the risk of heart disease. This study supports previous evidence of increased risk of heart disease in Finnish men with high levels of iron in their bodies. To my mind, those considering taking an iron supplement would do well to make sure they really do need it first.

The conventional way of determining iron levels in the body is with a blood test. The most useful test in this regard is to measure the level of a substance called ferritin in the blood, as this is believed to give a good indication of the overall level of iron in the body. When ferritin levels are low, increasing iron intake is quite likely to improve energy and well-being. The most absorbable form of iron in the diet is found in animal products such as red meat, oysters, and fish. Veggie sources of iron include dried fruit, molasses and green leafy vegetables.

Iron is available over”the-counter and also as a prescription medication. The most commonly prescribed form of iron is known as ferrous sulphate, though this quite often gives rise gut-related side-effects such as constipation. Other forms of iron that may be less troublesome in this respect include ferrous gluconate and ferrous succinate. It is well known that vitamin C enhances the absorption of iron. Taking 250 – 500 mg of vitamin C with each dose of iron can reduce its effective dose and help prevent any unwanted side-effects too.

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