1. Are you getting enough iron?

    For those of us old enough to remember American radio and TV of the 1950s and 60s, a popular commercial of the era was for a product called Geritol. Remember? Even Lucy Ricardo was seen reminding viewers of the dangers of having “iron-poor blood.” But was all that just hype to sell a sponsor’s product, or is iron deficiency a genuine concern?

    According to recent studies, about 20% of American women, 50% of pregnant women, and 3% of all American men are deficient in iron. But what does that really mean?   And how would you know if you were among those statistics?


    The role iron plays in the body

    Iron is a naturally occurring and widely available mineral found in the hemoglobin of our red blood cells, responsible for carrying oxygen throughout our bodies. In case you aren’t aware, not only is oxygen essential for maintaining life as regards the functioning of our lungs and respiratory system, it is essential to cellular function and replication. Simply put, cells can’t do what they do without a constant supply of oxygen. And without enough iron in our diets, we make too few blood cells to carry sufficient oxygen, a condition known as “iron deficiency anemia.”

    While the obvious signs of this condition are feeling ever tired and looking pale (just as the makers of Geritol told us), once these symptoms manifest, it’s only the tip of the proverbial health iceberg. These symptoms can indicate that a number of other health conditions are already underway.  Most importantly in these increasingly stressful times, perhaps, iron deficiency anemia can lead to irregular or elevated heart rate as your heart attempts to compensate for this deficiency by pumping more blood. Iron deficiency anemia has a direct link to heart malfunction.

    Iron deficiency, as it turns out, isn’t simply a matter of improper diet–which can easily be compensated for by increasing our intake of certain fruits and vegetables or by taking handy supplements. There are, in fact, a number of situations and conditions that not only cause iron deficiency, but can work against our efforts to get enough iron in our diets.

    Blood loss (either through menstruation or surgery), bleeding ulcers (that may be so slight as to not even draw concern), cigarette smoking, alcohol abuse, aspirin use, anti-inflammatory medications, colon cancer, kidney disease, and Gaucher’s disease can all contribute. Also, as we age, even the simple well-intentioned habit of donating blood can have a more adverse effect on iron levels in the body than ever thought before.


    The health benefits of iron

    > Hemoglobin formation: Formation of hemoglobin happens to be the chief function of this mineral. Not only that, but being a part of hemoglobin, it gives the dark red shade to the blood and also aids in transporting oxygen to the body cells.

    > Muscle function: Iron is a vital element for muscle health. It is present in the muscle tissues and helps in the supply of oxygen required for muscle contraction.

    > Brain function: Development of the brain is also one of the many functions of iron. Since oxygen supply to the blood is aided by iron and the brain uses approximately 20% of the blood oxygen, iron is directly related to brain health and brain functioning.

    > Restless leg syndrome: Iron deficiency is now recognized as one of the causes of restless leg syndrome, with most research on this syndrome concentrated on iron deficiency. In many cases, proper intake of iron supplements, in required dosage (per doctor’s consultation), can cure this annoying problem.

    > Regulation of body temperature: Iron is a facilitator for regulating body temperature. An interesting fact is that it has the inherent ability to regulate according to the absorption capacity of the body.

    > Cellular function: One of the most important health benefits of iron is that it acts as a carrier of oxygen and thus participates in transferring oxygen from one body cell to other.  As oxygen is required by each and every body part to perform routine functions, this is an essential function of iron.

    > Neurotransmitter synthesis: Iron actively takes part in the synthesis of a number of essential neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These chemicals play critical roles in various activities involving neurons and the human brain.

    > Treating chronic diseases: Not only is iron the key in the treatment of iron deficiency anemia, it helps in the treatment of chronic disorders like renal failure anemia.

    > Treating anemia in women: Iron also benefits women suffering anemia during pregnancy or menstruation, and is recommended by health experts in treating another form of anemia called predialysis anemia.

    > Treating fatigue: Iron can be critical in combating various causes of fatigue in both men and women.

    > Improving immune system function: Iron also plays a key role in providing strength to the immune system to keep it proficient in fighting diseases and infections.

    > Energy metabolism: Iron is an important component of energy metabolism in the human body by which energy is extracted from food and distributed throughout the body.

    > Enzyme systems: As it happens, iron is the most important constituent of different enzyme systems and other important constituents like myoglobin, the cytochromes, and catalase.

    > Treating insomnia: Iron is also useful in treating insomnia, while improving the health benefits derived from sleep.

    > Improving concentration: Iron, when consumed in sufficient amounts in the diet, improves concentration to help us carry out our daily activities.


    Natural sources and supplements

    The healthiest foods for getting sufficient iron in our diets are eggs, green vegetables (like broccoli and spinach), grains, most fruits, raisins, and legumes. In that most thoughtful vegetarian diets are rich in these particular foods (minus the eggs), the incidence of iron deficiency among vegetarians is statistically less than for meat-eaters who often do not eat well-balanced meals.

    To help the body absorb iron from our diets, nutritionists suggest combining plant foods high in iron with those high in vitamin C such as orange juice, citrus fruits, and tomatoes. But should your doctor have you on a diet that specifically prohibits these foods, iron supplements are also an option.

    Note: Many nutritionists suggest that post-menopausal women switch from vitamins containing high doses of iron for a formula without iron, and rely on a healthy diet.


    Testing for iron deficiency: iron-poor blood

    Today, a simple blood test can detect a deficiency in iron, and should you suffer any of the symptoms discussed here for more than a few weeks — including pale skin color, fatigue, irritability, dizziness, weakness, shortness of breath, sore tongue, brittle nails, decreased appetite, frontal headache — you’ll probably want to make an appointment with your doctor.

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