Why do we need iron?
Fatigue and hair loss is often blamed on iron deficiency, so many people, especially women, who naturally need more iron than men on a daily basis, take a supplement, but new research indicates that getting the right amount of iron may be more complicated than simply popping a pill.
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So how much iron should I get?
It’s recommended that men need 8.7mg of iron per day, while women need 14.8mg. This difference is based on the blood loss that occurs during menstruation which can lower iron levels in a woman.
If, however, you’ve been through menopause, you are no longer losing blood on a monthly basis. For women who are no longer menstruating, the recommendation is 8mg. However, women who have cancer, arthritis or kidney problems may need more and may be prescribed iron supplements.
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So what’s the problem with taking an iron supplement?
As yet, there hasn’t been any problem proven, but new research from Imperial College London does show that high levels of iron damaged human cells on a single-cell level.
However, the researchers point out that they can’t say whether the same effects would be seen in live humans (the cells were tested in a laboratory setting), nor can they say yet how it might affect a person’s health overall. However, it does suggest that excess iron may have some unwanted effects on our bodies.
How much iron is harmful?
The researchers can’t say what amount should or shouldn’t be taken in supplement form because they can’t know your individual iron levels before or after taking supplements.
However, they do say that they think higher doses (of between 65mg and 200mg) of iron supplement for people who are deficient in iron (called anaemic) may be too high.
The researchers also urge patients who have been prescribed iron tablets not to stop taking their medication as they can’t say for sure whether they are harmful or not, and some women, such as those who are pregnant, may need the extra iron in order to have a healthy pregnancy and baby.
Most iron supplements, however, such as those that are bought over the counter rather than by prescription, contain less than 20 mg per tablet.
How to get enough iron
Unless you’ve been prescribed an iron supplement by your doctor, get your iron from natural sources. It’s far more difficult to get too much of a nutrient if you eat a healthy balanced diet and it’s also the ideal way to ensure that you’re getting a good balance of vitamins and minerals that support each other and promote absorption.
What foods are high in iron?
Dark, leafy greens, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, eggs, brown rice and, of course, meat and fish.
Vitamin C is also essential to aid absorption so drink a glass of orange juice before eating an iron-rich meal, or eat it with potatoes which are also a good source of vitamin C.
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Note: Too much iron is poisonous, even small amounts can kill a child so always keep iron supplements out of reach of children. Read more on our iron summary page.