Iron supplements fight fatigue — the rest of the story

photo: Foxtongue via Flickr

Some recent headlines:

All of which emphasizes the point that you should never get your nutrition advice from headlines.

A study released last month, and published recently in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, did indeed come to the conclusion that iron supplements can fight fatigue.  In women of child-bearing age who complained of fatigue and had low end ferritin (a form of stored iron) levels, but were not officially anemic.  Not in men.  Not in children.  Not in post-menopausal women.  And extra iron isn’t likely to boost energy for anyone, including women of child bearing age who have higher ferritin and who aren’t complaining of fatigue.  While fatigue improved in those women given iron, anxiety and depression scores did not improve.

Iron is a mineral nutrient, and most people understand that it’s an important part of red blood cells, where iron is a key component of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to cells, where it is used in energy metabolism.  About 2/3 of the iron in our body is in hemoglobin.  We lose 1-2 mg/day through normal processes of digestion and metabolism, and need to absorb that much from food.  The recommended daily intake varies by age and gender.  Women of childbearing age, who lose considerably more iron through menstruation, should get 18 mg/day, but men only need about 8 mg.  Not all is absorbed, which is why the RDI is higher than the amount we actually need to absorb.  Iron from meat is absorbed more efficiently than from plant foods, but it’s not hard to get enough iron from a vegetarian or vegan diet, with some planning.  And recent research indicates that the form of iron in many plant foods may be better absorbed than previously thought.

Who might need an iron supplement?  People with iron deficiency anemia, as diagnosed by a physician.  Note, there are other types of anemia caused by other metabolic problems that have nothing to do with iron intake, so taking iron for those would not help.  That’s why anemia needs to be evaluated by a physician.  Simply taking iron supplements because you feel fatigued and read a headline is a bad idea, considering that excess iron causes it’s own set of problems.  Iron storage disease, once considered unusual, may be more common than thought.  Ironically one of the symptoms of iron storage disease is… you guessed it …. fatigue.  So if you’re a guy who feels fatigue, and you read a headline about iron supplements and started taking them to fight fatigue, you could be doing more harm than good.  Never get your nutrition advice from a headline.

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