Of the many types of nutrients your body needs, iron assumes a special place. This mineral is essential in the making of red blood cells. These red cells supply oxygen to most parts of your body. An inadequate supply of iron can lead to a medical condition called anemia. Iron can be sourced from natural foods as well as supplements. Though foods remain the major source for iron supply, some people may need to depend on iron supplements. A few of these supplements are available as over the counter (OTC) products. These supplements however can trigger some adverse side effects. It is recommended to know the common side before starting to take supplements of iron.

A protein called hemoglobin present in your red blood cells moves oxygen from your lungs to other parts of the body. Nearly 2/3rd of the iron content of your body resides in this protein. The most common types of iron supplements are ferric sulfate, ferric citrate, ferrous sulfate, ferrous gluconate, etc. Your body needs vitamin C to put iron to effective use. Many of these supplements have this vitamin as an ingredient. You can also consume foods rich in this vitamin, for example – foods like potato, oranges, strawberry, etc. Though these supplements are available as tablets, a few are also available in a liquid form.

The leading causes for iron deficiency include (1) loss of blood due to abnormal discharge during menstrual periods, (2) mid to final stages of pregnancy wherein there is an increased demand for red blood cells to care for your fetus, (3) not taking enough iron rich foods, etc. In a few instances, people with medical conditions such as pancreatitis (swelling of pancreas), fibrosis, Crohn’s disease (internal swelling of bowel or another parts of your digestive system), celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten present in cereals), etc.

How much iron do you need?

As mentioned, a low level of iron in your body can lead to a clinical condition called anemia. You are likely to experience persistent spells of tiredness, gasping for breath, inability to focus on things or stay attentive, deformation of nails, palpitations, etc. It is highly recommended to check how much iron content your body has within; a timely investigation of a likely deficiency can prevent incidence of anemic conditions.

There is no such thing as a standard requirement of iron. It can depend on multiple factors such as your sex, if you are lactating or pregnant, your age, etc. Adult women have a bigger need for iron than men. Women – aged between 20 to 49 years – need nearly 18 milligrams of iron every day; on the other hand, men may need only 8 milligrams per day. The need for iron among aged women decreases significantly to less than 10 milligrams in a day. However, the need for iron among men – regardless of their age – remains the same at 8 milligrams per day.

Deficiency of iron – In stages

An iron-deficient medical condition shows up over a period of time. According to medical studies, it manifests in 3 distinctive stages.

Milder level of deficiency of iron – You may need to know about a protein called ferritin; this is a protein which stores up iron and releases whenever your body requires this mineral. At the milder stage of iron deficiency, ferritin fares in the range of 12 to 28 mcg / L. Hematocrit reads over 40% in men and over 35% in women.

Milder functional deficiency of iron – In this stage, your ferritin level drops below 10 micrograms per liter. However, your red blood cell count fares at a normal range of over 12 grams per dL.

Iron-deficient anemic condition – This is when the condition tends to show signs of anemia. Here, your ferritin level drops down to below 10 micrograms per dL and your red blood cells fare much lesser than a normal range (of 12 grams / dL). Hematocrit fares at less than 41% in men and below 35% in women.

Hematocrit or hemoglobin testing are the usual tests to assess deficiency of iron. The limitation with these tests however is their inability to detect interim stages of deficiency; in other words, these tests are helpful to establish an anemic condition. In order to identify deficiencies of iron at an earlier stage, serum ferritin is widely regarded as an effective test. If you detect early warning signs of a likely anemic condition, you are advised to consult your physician about the need for this test.

Iron supplements and their side effects

Supplements of iron are more likely to rectify deficiencies faster than diet-based supply of iron. Such supplements are a godsend for people who have difficulties in supplying needful iron to their body. Supplements can help women who are pregnant or lactating, young adults and children, women with abnormal discharge of blood during their menstrual periods, etc. Supplements can also help people who do intensive workouts, those living with cancers and people who underwent surgeries in their abdominal or gastric tract.

Side effects of iron supplements

In general, intake of iron at optimum levels is unlikely to trigger any major side effects. A few people may however develop some side effects. You need to stay aware that side effects are dependent on the dosage levels. For instance, you may find your stools turning black. There is no need to panic or take remedial actions when you experience such changes in color of stool. If you need added clarity on this, it is a good practice to seek needful inputs from your treating doctor.

Other common side effects of iron supplement include abdominal discomforts, nausea, difficulties to pass stool, gas formation or bloating, indigestion, etc. If you are taking the supplement as a liquid, you may witness a discoloration of teeth. This is only a temporary effect and can be easily avoided by using a straw to consume liquid forms of iron supplement.

Excessive intake and side effects

Intake of an excessive amount of iron supplements can lead to other medical conditions. The most common side effect is your body’s inability to absorb other nutrients. An overdose of iron is also likely to trigger hemo-chromatosis. This is caused when you have taken an abundant amount of iron supplements. If left untreated, this overdosed condition can impair the functioning of your pancreas, heart, liver and other essential part of the body. An overdose is also most likely to trigger iron-poisoning. In such instances, you are advised to take needful medical help on an emergency basis.

Needless consumption of iron supplement and related side effects

Consumption of iron supplements needlessly and without proper medical supervision may damage or injure your cells. If such unnecessary dosages are taken for a long time, you may eventually witness failure of organs and near-fatal outcomes such as passing out. These effects can cause death among younger adults or children.

Risks of infections

High level of ferritin can lead to infections, especially among people prone to such risks. This is because an iron-deficient condition discourages the spread of infections. In some cases, deficiency may also reduce the resistance to a few viral strains. So, it is often tough to conclude if an iron supplement abets or discourages microbial infections.

Iron supplement – A few more pointers

It is widely believed that iron sourced from plant-based foods is not easy for the body to absorb. So, people who consume a vegan diet or those strictly taking a vegetarian diet may need to take more amounts of iron to offset such low rates of absorption. Also, stay aware of foods with tannins; this substance is known to decrease the absorption rates of iron.

Sulfate of iron (or, ferrous sulfate) is a widely used supplement. It is also used as an agent to fortify foods in order to make them rich in iron. This supplement is commonly administered with ascorbic acid (a form of vitamin C) to enhance its absorption level. When oral administration of iron is allergic or causes adverse side effects, it is given as an injection. A shot of iron supplement is also given where the need is an urgent one. This is experienced during post-delivery times as well as post-operative conditions. It is highly recommended to assess how well your body responds to iron supplements. If it is an oral dose, you are advised to wait for at least 3-months to measure hemoglobin levels. On the other hand, if it is a parenteral, a blood test can be administered in a matter of four to five weeks to check how your body has responded to the iron supplement.

In sum, the most common side effects of supplementing iron are difficulties to pass stool, indigestion or other abdominal discomforts such as nausea, etc. Among all supplements of iron, ferrous sulfate is known to trigger a few adverse side effects. This supplement is mainly known for its ability to harden your stool; hence, softeners of stools are often administered to minimize the possible risks of constipation. Overconsumption of iron supplements can lead to iron-toxicity; such conditions may be near-fatal or can become fatal at times, especially for younger adults and children aged 5 years or less.
In general, doses taken after a meal have helped lower the extent as well as intensity of side effects. Your treating doctor may hence advise you to take iron soon after your meal.

Discoloration of stool and teeth are also other common side effects. If you are taking a liquid form of these supplements, it is a good practice to use a straw to minimize likely discoloration of your teeth. You are advised to tell your doctor and pharmacist about the medicines you currently consume. If you are taking drugs that are prone to possible interactions with iron supplements, your doctor will prescribe safer alternatives to treat iron deficiency.

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