Iron is an element naturally occurring in both nature and in our bodies. Iron is most abundant in our red blood cells and acts as a supplier of oxygen to muscles and other tissues throughout the body. Iron helps cells grow and gives us energy. Many foods that are high in protein are also rich in iron, including a wide variety of meats, poultry and fish. People who do not eat a balanced diet may have iron deficiencies and may need to supplement their diets with extra iron to avoid fatigue and anemia. Iron supplements can cause side effects in some people, ranging from minor inconveniences to more severe forms of overload.
Recommended Daily Allowances
The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences has come up with recommended daily allowances (RDA) of iron based on age, gender and life stage (pregnancy or nursing, for example). The values for healthy iron levels in males and females remain the same during infancy (11 mg per day) and early childhood (7 to 10 mg per day for ages 1 to 13 years old). When people hit adolescence, girls need more iron than boys (15 mg per day versus 11 mg), and this trend continues through adulthood until a person reaches his 50s, when the levels drop to an RDA of about 8 mg daily. Being aware of daily recommended allowances is important, because if you are taking in adequate levels of iron through diet, supplementation is not necessary. If you take iron supplements on top of a healthy diet, you may experience more side effects due to a higher-than-normal level of iron in your blood.
Gastrointestinal side effects of iron supplements are common and usually decrease after a few days of steady supplementation. Before your body adjusts to the new iron levels, indigestion, nausea and constipation are among the side effects you may experience. Some ways to combat the stomach upset are to eat a small snack when taking iron pills or suspension fluids and to take the supplement whole, rather than crushing or breaking up the pills. You may also notice your stools are darker than usual when you take iron supplements. This side effect is benign, and happens because your body is excreting extra amounts of iron that are not being absorbed.
Iron overload or toxicity is a concern when you have taken more iron than you need. Humans store iron quite efficiently and do not generally excrete the element unless there is some barrier to absorption, including eating daily products or coffee close to the time when you take your iron supplement. In addition to setting RDAs, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences has created a limit to what it calls "upper tolerance level," or the highest amount of iron supplementation that is safe for a person to take. These limits range from 40 to 45 mg of iron daily, depending on a person's age. Signs that this level has been exceeded can include diarrhea, vomiting, losing consciousness and having a rapid or very weak pulse. Emergency medical attention is required in a case of iron poisoning of this kind.
Minimizing Side Effects
Finding the right dose of an iron supplement that will not cause side effects may take time to achieve. Always begin an iron supplement under the supervision of a doctor who knows all of your health concerns. Some people who are anemic may find that their side effects are not as bothersome if they gradually work up to a full dose. The Office of Dietary Supplements, affiliated with the National Institute of Health, recommends that people who experience nausea and other stomach-related side effects start with half of the standard dosage of iron. Once the body has adjusted to the halved dose of iron, the dosage can be incrementally increased until the full dose is reached. Taking two smaller amounts of iron twice daily instead of one large dosage may also be a way to manage and minimize unpleasant side effects.
Warning About Medications
Iron supplements may not be safe to use if you take certain medications, including cimetidine, levodopa and tetracycline and several others. Some of the side effects may be simply a lack of absorption of the iron and requires timing your medications and iron for different ends of the day. Other effects may be more serious and can affect your health adversely. Iron toxicity could possibly result without careful planning if you are taking prescription medications long with iron supplements. Make sure your doctor or pharmacist has a complete list of all medications and supplements you are taking before you begin a course of iron.
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