The Role of Iron in the Human Body: A Crucial Mineral for Oxygen Transport, Brain Development, and More
Iron is a vital mineral that has many important physiological functions.
Here we will explore what iron is, the role of iron in the human body, symptoms of iron deficiency, some of the best sources of this essential mineral, and more.
What Is Iron?
Iron is a mineral with the symbol Fe and atomic number 26.
While some iron is indeed stored in the body, it is considered essential, meaning it must be continuously obtained through diet in order for necessary amounts to be met.
Most of the iron found in the body is found within hemoglobin, which is the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to all of the body’s tissues. The remaining amounts are stored as ferritin in the liver, spleen, and bone marrow.
Iron must be bound to a protein in order for the body to properly use it. Transferrin is the primary iron binding protein that is responsible for transporting iron throughout the body so that it may fulfill its many roles.
A peptide hormone called hepcidin regulates the absorption of iron as well as the distribution of iron throughout the body.
The recommended daily intake for iron is approximately between 8 – 18mg, although this is completely individual. Each person may need less or more depending on their unique bioindividuality and factors such as age, sex, and the type of eating plan that they follow.
The vitamins, mineral, and nutrients within our body work together in their metabolism and function. Adequate levels of vitamin C are needed for sufficient absorption of iron.
The Roles of Iron Within the Body
Iron has many important roles within our body including:
- Production of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that is responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body
- Production of myoglobin, a protein that stores and transports oxygen in the muscles
- Fetal growth and development, particularly brain development
- Muscle function
- Energy production (iron helps to produce energy from the food you eat)
- Cellular production and growth
- Cellular division
- Supports immune system function
- Supports brain function for concentration, memory, and learning
- Cofactor in enzyme reactions, which are proteins in the body that help to catalyze and speed up a great deal of chemical reactions that are required for our physiological function
Symptoms of Iron Deficiency
The symptoms of iron deficiency primarily include:
- Iron deficiency anemia, which means the body can’t make enough hemoglobin to be able to transport oxygen effectively
- Chronic fatigue, often severe
- Shortness of breath
- Pale skin
- Hair loss
- Brittle nails
- Fast heartbeat and heart palpitations
- Chest pain
- Headaches and/or migraines
- Lowered immune function
- Body temperature dysregulation
- Sore tongue
- Cold hands and feet
- Low appetite
- Difficulty concentrating
- Gastrointestinal upset such as gas, bloating, and abdominal pain
Iron deficiency is more likely in women with heavy periods, pregnant women, those who donate blood frequently, and those with gut imbalances (such as parasitic infection, low probiotic levels, and others) that impact the proper absorption of nutrients.
Copper Toxicity, a form of heavy metal toxicity and mineral imbalance, can also contribute to iron deficiency anemia.
Food Sources of Iron
There are 2 main forms of dietary iron which include heme iron and nonheme iron. Meat sources of iron contain both heme and nonheme iron, while plant sources only contain nonheme iron. Heme iron tends to be more thoroughly absorbed by the body.
Foods with the highest iron content include:
- Spinach and other leafy greens such as kale and collard greens
- Green peas
- Beans/legumes such as kidney beans and lentils
- Brussels sprouts
- Nuts such as pistachios
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Organ meats such as liver
- Poultry such as turkey
- Dark chocolate
Including plenty of these foods in your eating plan is a wonderful way to meet your body’s iron needs.
Iron supplements may be needed for those who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet or for those who have an iron deficiency for other reasons.
The best form of iron supplements are those made with ferrous iron (such as ferrous biglycinate), as they are usually the best absorbed. Furthermore, iron supplements should always be taken with food.
Iron supplementation can also cause constipation. However, ferrous forms are less likely to cause constipation.
If you are also taking calcium supplements, it is best to take calcium and iron at different times of day, as calcium can interfere with the proper absorption of iron.
In addition, it can take a number of months of supplementing iron for a deficiency to be balanced.
One more caution with iron supplements is that if you currently have an infection of any kind, it is usually best to focus on increasing your intake of iron rich foods (and eradicating the infection of course) instead of taking high dose iron supplements.
This is because some pathogens (bacteria, parasites, etc) can use iron as one of the components to build their biofilm. Biofilm is a protective layer that pathogens build around themselves to avoid being killed. The stronger the biofilm, the harder it is to eradicate an infection.
For a powerful technique to dissolve biofilm and ensure more success with healing infections, check out this article.
Important Note on Iron Overload
Because the body does store some iron, developing an iron imbalance such as iron overload can happen.
Iron overload is very detrimental to the body, as excess iron is stored in organs such as the heart and pancreas and can be damaging to them. High levels of iron can also interfere with the proper absorption of other vital minerals such as zinc and also adversely impact the adrenal glands.
Henceforth, it is important to remain aware of iron overload.
There is a genetic inherited condition called hemochromatosis in which the body stores too much iron, however, developing iron overload can happen if one does not have this condition as well.
Men are more prone to iron overload than women, especially menstruating women.
If you are taking iron supplements, it is important to have your levels checked by your doctor periodically so that you can ensure that your levels remain within optimal parameters.
Our health and wellness are all about balance.
As we’ve explored here, iron is a crucial mineral that the body needs for many important functions.
Making sure to include plenty of iron rich foods and remaining mindful of iron overload are key steps for your health and wellness.