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What Iron Does to Your Body? The 12 Research Based Benefits and Functions of Iron for the Body.

Learn the best tips for maintaining optimal iron levels to enhance vitality and well-being.

A childhood favorite, Popeye the Sailor Man, got his amazing strength and big muscles from the iron in spinach. Even though the muscles were shown bigger than they really were, the drawings got the point across about how important iron is for our bodies. Iron is very good for our health and well-being in general. But what does iron do in the body, and how does it enter the body?

Let’s go together on this journey of understanding iron’s role in our body and what its deficiency or overload can cause us.

Iron as a Nutrient

Iron is another nutrient that the body requires to function normally. The small intestine absorbs it and stores it as ferritin (Fe) in the liver, spleen, and muscle tissue.  When needed, it is transferred to the body via another protein called transferrin, where it performs its functions.

It goes to the body and the bone marrow, where it forms red blood cells (RBCs). The human body is quite efficient and doesn’t want to waste resources such as iron. Therefore, macrophages are specialized cells that degrade old red blood cells to preserve their iron content. This process can produce more RBCs.

Importance of Iron For the Body

It is normal for people to be unaware of iron’s benefits until they are severely deficient. Having the required amount of iron in the body according to age is very important. It is needed for a lot of functions in the body, and some of them are mentioned below,

1. Haemoglobin Formation

We all know how important haemoglobin is to the body. It is the most abundant protein in the body containing iron, with a 65% percentage. The main function of this protein is to transport oxygen throughout the body, and iron boosts its capacity. Apart from this, hemoglobin is also important for making up for blood loss, especially in women during their menstrual cycle.

2. Helps with Muscle Formation and Reduces Fatigue

Another important function of iron is to form myoglobin, the protein that delivers oxygen to muscles (skeletal, cardiac, and smooth). This protein is vital for muscle contraction, tone, and maintaining elasticity. If you don’t have enough iron, your muscles can’t get enough oxygen.

This is thought to be why iron-deficient people are weak and have low endurance. A review from 2018 found that people with low levels of iron non-anemia who took iron supplements felt less fatigued. The study additionally indicated that eating iron-rich foods or taking iron supplements could help with fatigue signs even if someone hasn’t been diagnosed with anaemia. In another study, women who took iron supplements felt less fatigued.

3. Boosts Immunity

Getting enough iron is especially important for defense cells to work properly. It is very important for the formation, maturity, and growth of immune cells like macrophages and lymphocytes, which fight pathogens like bacteria and viruses. These cells not only fight off invaders as soon as they come into the body, but they also make memory cells to stop diseases from happening again. Also, because both human cells and viruses need iron to grow, iron makes it harder for disease-causing agents to get this nutrient.

4. Neurotransmitter Synthesis

It is one of the main ingredients in many important neurotransmitters, such as epinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These substances rely on the transmission of signals to function in many neuronal and brain-based functions.

5. Helps With Restless Leg Syndrome

Iron levels can also help with restless leg syndrome, which is aggravated at night and causes muscle weakness and fatigue. In this condition, a person constantly needs to shift weight from one leg to another.

According to a 2019 study, taking iron supplements for four weeks could improve the incidence of restless leg syndrome episodes.

6. Treats Insomnia

Insomniacs have reported an improvement in their sleeping habits after taking iron. Regulating circadian rhythms is one of its benefits. It also keeps blood pressure in check while sleeping, which is said to keep people awake at night.

7. Improves Cognition

Studies have shown that not getting enough iron makes you dull. In fact, when the amount of iron in the blood drops, it’s almost instantly harder to focus and pay attention. Bringing iron levels back to a healthy range can help people focus and think more clearly. A 2021 study showed that it is effective in helping treat kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Iron is also important for brain cells to use nutrients properly. Microglia are defense cells that live in the brain and play a big part in keeping iron levels in the brain in check. These cells help control neuroinflammation, which is linked to Alzheimer’s and other neurological illnesses.

8. Body Temperature Regulation

Iron helps the body maintain a normal temperature and keeps everything at a regular temperature, which is great for metabolic and enzymatic processes.

9. Treats AnemiaUntitled design 2

Like many other functions, iron is important for treating anemia, a blood-related condition with low iron levels in the body. It is a widespread fact that iron supplementation can help people with low ferritin levels in the body, especially women.

10. Can Prevent Hairloss

There are many reasons why people lose their hair, but iron is the nutrient most strongly linked to hair loss. People who don’t get enough iron frequently suffer from telogen effluvium, a type of hair loss in which more of the hair on their heads falls out than grows. Some research suggests that treating iron insufficiency may help with hair loss by increasing iron ferritin storage.

11. Helps with Healthy Pregnancy

During pregnancy, the body makes a lot more red blood cells and blood volume, which means that the body needs to absorb more iron. But it can also happen. So supplementing iron orally to pregnant women can help with healthy pregnancy and reduce the risk of birth defects in children.

12. Can Age you Healthier

Having good ferritin levels in the body can make you age better. Researchers who looked at the genes of more than a million people think that having enough iron in your body may help you age better and live longer. The study looked at three aspects of getting older: health span, the number of years without illness, and longevity. And it was found that maintaining a balance between the levels of iron in the body reduced the incidence of diseases

It was proven in another study that a sample of yeast, when supplied more iron, made cells live longer and work better, mostly due to the enhanced efficiency of their energy factory, the mitochondria.

Decoding Iron Levels

A full study of the patient’s medical history and symptoms is often the first step in assessing whether the body has a good level of iron.

This could include talking about what the person eats when they have their menstruation if they have ever donated blood and any stomach problems that could mean they aren’t absorbing food properly or losing blood. Many doctors also recommend some tests to determine the levels of nutrients in the body.

In these tests, a simple blood sample will be taken from your body. It takes less than five minutes most of the time. These tests include,

  • Ferritin blood test: This test checks the stored iron level in the body.
  • Serum iron test: This measures the total iron level in the body at a given time. It might not be the most accurate method of assessing the body’s nutritional levels because these results can change and are susceptible to iron intake.
  • Total Iron Binding Capacity Test (TIBC): This test measures how well iron binds to transferrin and other blood proteins.
  • Hemoglobin and Hematocrit: The most popular of all. This test measures the hemoglobin level and the red blood cell percentage in the blood, respectively. Although these tests do not directly detect iron levels, they can reveal iron deficiency anemia.

Below are the normal ranges of the above-mentioned tests. (1)(2)(3)

Test Reference Range: Men Reference Range: Women
Serum Ferritin 20-250 ng/mL 10-120 ng/mL
Serum Iron 65-176 µg/dL 50-170 µg/dL
Total Iron-Binding Capacity (TIBC) 250-450 µg/dL 250-450 µg/dL
Hemoglobin 13.8-17.2 g/dL 12.1-15.1 g/dL
Hematocrit 40.7%-50.3% 36.1%-44.3%

All these tests can determine whether you are short of the nutrient or have more of it.  However, there are some other signs that can also help assess your iron levels. Such as,

Signs of Low Iron Levels iron

Either too much iron is lost, or not enough iron is taken in, which can cause an iron shortage. This is because it lowers the amount of hemoglobin in the blood.

  • Tiredness & Lack of Energy: People who are deficient in this nutrient may feel more fatigued. Due to low levels of haemoglobin and thus less energy.
  • Paler skin complexion is not a direct sign of a low nutrient level, but it does happen to people who are deficient in it. Fewer red blood cells reach the skin, making it look less rosy and plump.
  • Shortness of Breath: Having trouble breathing could be a sign. This is due to the fact that when iron is absent, the body is unable to transport oxygen throughout the body. Your body’s oxygen levels will drop,, and your breathing rate will rise as a result.
  • Craving non-food items: Also called Pica, this is the urge to eat things that aren’t food. It could be anything from ice cubes to dirt. The cause of such effects isn’t clear, but many have reported it, especially pregnant women and children.
  • Notable Heartbeats: Similar to palpitations, noticeable heartbeats could indicate an iron shortage. If a person is iron deficient, they may notice that their heartbeat is faster or more obvious than normal as the heart has to work harder to transport oxygen.

Causes of Low Iron Levels

Iron deficieny is the most common with 25% people suffering from it worldwide.

What are the causes of iron deficiency? Here are some common reasons:

  • Not consuming iron-rich foods.
  • Pregnancy or growth spurts can also cause iron levels to fluctuate.
  • Bleeding or blood loss due to menstruation, accidents, or medical procedures such as bypass surgery.
  • Regularly donating blood can deplete iron stores.
  • Certain diseases, such as cancer, kidney failure, heart failure, and inflammatory conditions can all make it hard to absorb iron and handle it properly in the body, which can lead to iron deficits.
  • Excessive consumption of coffee, tea, dairy, or calcium supplements can also inhibit iron absorption.

Some people are more likely to develop iron deficiency than others if they belong to any of the following categories: (1)

  • Premature infants
  • Children
  • Pregnant women or those who menstruate
  • Frequent blood donors
  • Patients who underwent gastric bypass surgery
  • Vegetarians and others who lack heme iron

it That is why it is suggested that one always seek professional help to diagnose if anyone has the symptoms mentioned above. A long-term lack of iron can put stress on the heart because it has to work harder to pump oxygen-rich blood around the body. This extra stress can make the heart get bigger or even cause heart failure in the worst cases.

Signs of High Iron Levels

Similarly, if low levels of iron are harmful, then the same goes for high levels. A condition known as iron overload or hemochromatosis, can develop and cause equal damage at low levels. However the ratio of this condition is very less and only 1 out of 200 people suffer from it. Still, it can lead to overload in iron levels in the liver and cause problems such as,

  • Fatigue or overall weakness
  • Joint pains in hands and feet are often misinterpreted as arthritis
  • Pain or discomfort in the liver area (upper right belly).
  • The skin may look bronze or grey.
  • Diabetes-like symptoms like thirst, frequent bathroom visits, and tiredness.
  • Irregular heartbeats.

Many factors can cause all these symptoms of hemochromatosis

  • Genetics: The most common cause is a genetic condition that alters the body’s iron absorption capacity, leading to excessive iron accumulation. Northern Europeans are primarily affected.
  • Excessive Supplementation: Taking large amounts of iron supplements without medical care can raise iron levels above what is considered safe.
  • Multiple transfusions: People who have long-term blood disorders like thalassemia or sickle cell anemia may need blood transfusions more frequently. Because every transfusion adds iron to the body, these people can become iron-overloaded.
  • Liver diseases: Chronic hepatitis and alcoholic liver disease are two conditions that can make the liver’s iron processing go wrong. This can cause iron to build up in the liver and other organs.

Learning all of this can help us focus on how much iron we should have in our bodies. When there is too much iron in the body, it builds up in organs like the heart, liver, kidneys, and joints. This can cause arthritis, heart failure, liver disease, and high blood sugar. New data suggests that people may also have a link between having a lot of iron and living shorter lives.

Recommended Amounts of Iron For Each Age

Having a balanced level of all the nutrients in the body is important for any age.  The ideal iron level depends on age, gender, and health.  But there are certain recommended doses for iron levels, according to the research given below,

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Image Source: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/anemia/iron-deficiency-anemia

The National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine recommends men aged 19-50 to consume 8 mg of iron daily, women before menopause should take 18 mg daily, and after menopause, 8 mg per day.

Finding a suitable balance of iron is important because too little or too much of something can be bad for your health.

As we understand iron’s role in the body, we naturally turn to a question that comes up because of this careful balance: how do we keep our iron levels at the right level to get the most out of it? Stay with us as we continue this journey to find the keys to iron’s full promise in supporting a healthy, active life in our next article. By doing this, we hope to give you the tools you need to make the best decisions for your health so that the information you learn today leads to better lives tomorrow and Prime With Time!

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Dr Aimen

Being a Doctor by profession, Aimen is passionate about helping people get better health in their lives. Aimen enjoys her research on Prime With Time subjects and strives to create better awareness of the problems and changes related to women's health.
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