The Health Benefits of Iron

The Health Benefits of Iron


Introduction & Biological Role

Iron is an essential mineral required for human life.

The primary biological role of iron is helping facilitate the production of hemoglobin, a protein attached to red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. Iron is also involved in the synthesis of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the primary energy source of individual cells and ultimately, of us as well. It also helps with the synthesis of myoglobin, which helps provide oxygen to our muscles.

Iron metabolism is very tightly regulated. Most iron in the body is stored in the form of hemoglobin, however there is a storage protein called ferritin where the body also has iron reserves. Hepcidin is the hormone that is the key regulated of iron metabolism.

Health Benefits/ Uses

Iron-deficiency Anemia

The best and most common reason that people supplement iron is to treat iron deficiency anemia. I’ll review the risk factors and symptoms of iron deficiency in a minute, but if you are concerned about iron deficiency then you should discuss supplementation with your physician.

Anemia of chronic disease

Folks who have chronic diseases, such as cancer, immune mediated diseases (inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, etc), and diabetes just to name a few are at increased risk of under-utilizing their stored iron. In other words, they may have an iron deficiency and/or they may also not be able to properly utilize their iron stores. These individuals can benefit from iron supplementation in addition to treating the underlying disease.


In pregnancy, low levels of iron increase the risk of the infant to have low birth weight, premature birth and may harm neurological development. Women who are pregnant should supplement iron as recommended by their doctor.

Exercise Capacity & Sports Performance

There is limited evidence that iron supplementation improved athletic performance in individuals who had slightly below normal levels of iron. More research is needed.

ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)

Preliminary evidence suggests that supplementation of iron may help manage ADHD symptoms in children with low levels of iron. Ultimately, more research is needed to better identify this relationship. Because iron can be toxic at high levels, you should not have your children supplementing iron without the supervision of their pediatrician.

Restless Leg Syndrome

Iron deficiency may be associated with restless leg syndrome, a disease where this is a sensation and irresistible urge to move an individual's legs. Although not officially recognized as a treatment for iron deficiency, specialists suggest iron status should be assessed in individuals with RLS.


Iron deficiency manifests as anemia and is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide. The data for iron deficiency anemia is limited, but it is a fairly uncommon problem in the western world, and is much more common in developing nations where individuals are likely to have other nutritional deficiencies as well.

Symptoms of iron deficiency depends on severity, but include weakness, fatigue, rapid heart rate, palpitations and rapid breathing on exertion.

Risk factors include pregnancy, young women who have heavy menses, poor dietary intake, poor dietary absorption, frequent blood donors, bleeding and the rapid growth that occurs during childhood.


Iron toxicity can occur with excessive iron intake.

Symptoms include upset stomach, constipation, nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting and fainting. Toxicity increases your risk of of cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes and can lead to organ failure, coma and death.

It is important that iron supplements are child-proofed and not accessible to children.

There is also an inherited condition called hemochromatosis that leads to toxic building of iron in the body and requires management by your doctor.


Dietary iron comes in two forms: heme and non-heme. Non-heme iron is found in plants (nuts, beans, vegetables) and iron-fortified grain products. Heme iron is found in lean meat, seafood and poultry. The difference is that heme iron is more well absorbed than non-heme iron.

The Top 10 dietary sources

  1. Fortified breakfast cereals ( 18 mg/serving, 100% DV)
  2. Oysters, 3 oz (8 mg/serving, 44% DV)
  3. White beans, 1 cup (8 mg/serving, 44% DV)
  4. Dark Chocolate, 3 oz (7 mg/serving, 39% DV)
  5. Beef liver, 3 oz (5 mg/serving, 28% DV)
  6. Lentils, ½ cup (3 mg/serving, 17% DV)
  7. Spinach, ½ cup (3 mg/serving, 17% DV)
  8. Tofu, ½ cup (3 mg/serving, 17% DV)
  9. Kidney beans, ½ cup (2 mg/serving, 11% DV)
  10. Sardines, 3 oz (2 mg/serving, 11% DV)


  • Ferrous sulfate is most common form

  • Other available forms: ferrous fumarate, ferrous succinate, ferrous gluconate, ferrous lactate, ferrous glutamate, ferric ammonium citrate, and ferrous glycine

Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA)

The recommended daily amount varies substantially in children, so I will only review the adult recommendations here. According to the National Institute of Health

  • Adult men (18-50): 8 mg
  • Adult women (18-50): 18 mg
  • Adults > 50: 8 mg
  • Pregnant women: 27 mg
  • Breastfeeding women: 9 mg

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