Iron is essential to your health and well-being, playing a key role in circulating oxygen through your body. When your iron levels are low, your cells are deprived of oxygen, which makes you feel weak and exhausted. It also makes it harder for your body to fight off disease. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences recommends a daily allowance of iron ranging from 7 mg for young children to 27 mg for pregnant women. It is best if your iron intake comes from food sources, but if you are pregnant, have a diet that is low in iron, or have a medical condition that interferes with iron absorption, you may need to supplement with iron pills. This can sometimes produce side effects, however.
Iron pills can be tough on your stomach. Abdominal pain, nausea and constipation are common side effects. Talk to your doctor about taking half of your recommended dosage and working your way up to a full dose, or divide your pill into pieces and take it slowly over the course of the day. Taking iron pills with food may alleviate the worst of the symptoms.
Taking iron pills may change the color and consistency of your stools. This is common and not a cause for alarm. If constipation is a problem, ask your doctor about taking stool softeners while your body adjusts to the extra iron.
Researchers have spent decades studying a possible correlation between high iron stores and cardiac disease. A 1992 study by the University of Kuopio, Finland, linked high iron stores with increased heart attacks, but more recent studies have yielded conflicting results.
While no one can conclusively say whether excess iron puts you at a higher risk for cardiac disease, a 2002 study from the University of Kansas School of Medicine suggests that lowering your iron stores through frequent, long-term blood donation does lower your risk of heart attack.
Taking higher than recommended doses of iron is not good for you, and can cause serious health problems. Since your body cannot efficiently rid itself of excess iron, it can build up in your organs and tissues over time, increasing your risk of cirrhosis and heart failure. People with medical problems requiring frequent blood transfusions should be especially leery of taking iron pills.
Overdosing on iron pills can kill you, and accidental deaths have occurred from ingesting as little as 200 mg of iron. Store iron supplements out of the reach of children and vulnerable adults, and never take more than the recommended dosage. If overdose is suspected, call the Poison Control Center and go to the emergency room.