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Why You Need Iron in Your Diet

By Edited Nov 16, 2015 1 2

Boost Your Blood Oxygen-Carrying Capacity With Iron-Rich Foods

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Iron is a trace mineral that helps to keep your body functionally sound. Iron deficiency can result in low energy, symptomatically profiled by tiredness, fatigue and weakness. Although only trace amounts of iron are needed in your diet, deficiency of this mineral can result in impairments of the oxygen-carrying capacity of your blood; energy production in your body, and your over-all vitality.


Iron is an abundant mineral in our environment so it is not a trace mineral on the earth's crust. In your body, however, iron is a trace mineral because your body needs only small quantities to support normal function. It is interesting to distinguish between the way chemists and dietitians define trace minerals.

The total amount of iron in the human body is 4 to 5 grams, and most of it is in the blood. It is found essentially in the red blood cells, where it is bound to the hemoglobin. The iron content in the red blood cell is about 60 per cent of the total iron in the body.

Iron is poorly regulated by the body because the body does not excrete this mineral efficiently. Consequently, iron levels in your body is controlled by efficiency of its absorption from the intestine . Iron is very poorly absorbed from the intestine, and this helps to prevent iron overload. The body absorbs only 5 to 33 percent of the iron in your foods. The poor absorption and poor excretion of iron combine to present a net profile of iron deficiency as a more common problem than iron overload.

Iron in the Red Blood Cells

Iron plays an important role in the oxygen-carrying capacity of the red blood cells. Your brain, your muscles and every organ in your body needs adequate amounts of oxygen to work properly. Iron must bind to hemoglobin for the blood to perform its function of delivering oxygen to the organs and tissues of the body in an efficient manner. When iron binds to hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying capacity of the red blood cell goes up. Hemoglobin is a protein molecule in the red blood cell that binds to oxygen.

Impairment in Blood Oxygen-Carrying Capacity

If you become iron-deficient, your body will produce fewer red blood cells. These red blood cells are prone to have iron-deficient hemoglobin constituents. Therefore the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood would be impaired. Since the body can not receive adequate supply of oxygen from the blood under this condition, fatigue and diminished stamina can result.

In some cases, hypoxemia-induced chest pain (angina pectoris) can occur. The term, hypoxemia refers to the lowered level of oxygen in the blood. The pain occurs when the heart does not receive adequate supply of oxygen to support its function of pumping blood to meet the body's metabolic demands. This type of pain can also occur in other muscles, such as the skeletal muscles, if they are deprived of oxygen. This hypoxia-induced pain is markedly exacerbated if the muscle is active. Hypoxia is the general term for lowered level of oxygen. Hypoxia-induced pain is remarkable when it occurs in the heart because it  is life-threatening.

Iron in the Muscle Cells

Iron is also incorporated in the myoglobin in your muscles. myoglobin is an oxygen-binding protein molecule in the muscle cells, and it acts as an intracellular site for oxygen storage. Although It's oxygen-carrying capacity is quite small compared to that of the hemoglobin, myoglobin is a source of more oxygen for the active muscles. This additional oxygen helps to support stamina and keeps you from getting tired when the blood oxygen level is low.

Role of Iron in Energy Production in Your Body

Your body needs energy to function. It uses the compound called adenosine  (ATP) as the primary source of energy. The main site in the cell for producing this energy is the mitochondria. Iron is an important component of some of the enzymes that catalyze the reactions for energy production. The metabolic process for this energy production is called oxidative phosphorylation. Iron plays a key role in the transferring of electrons associated with a chain reaction (in the electron transport chain) for ATP production. Carbohydrates (sugars) and fats (fatty acids) are the primary and common substrates used for energy metabolism in your body. Extreme levels of iron deficiency can lead to low energy and diminished stamina.

Iron Deficiency

Iron deficiency can lead to iron-deficiency anemia, a common condition characterized by impairment in the ability of the red blood cells to carry and deliver oxygen to various organs of the body. Iron deficiency anemia is more likely to occur in young children as they go through the period of rapid growth. It is also very common in pregnant women and in women who lose significant amounts of blood during the menstrual period. Iron deficiency can also occur in people who have iron-deficient diets, or in those who can not absorb adequate amounts of iron from their foods.

Poor absorption of iron sometimes occurs as a result of digestive diseases such as celiac disease. Certain common medications such as anti-acids and proton inhibitors can also impair iron absorption. Iron absorption can be improved by vitamin C-rich diets. Some important dietary sources of vitamin C include fruits, such as oranges, apples, strawberries ,cantaloupe and pineapples; and vegetables such as tomatoes, green peppers and spinach.

Dietary Sources of Iron

Iron is present in a variety of foods, but their levels are generally low. A typical diet has 10 to 20 mg, from which only 10% is absorbed. Iron is found in both plant and animal sources. Animal sources are generally richer in iron than plant sources. Additionally, animal sources contain the form of iron called the heme-iron which are easily absorbed. Plant sources contain the non-heme type of iron, a form that is poorly absorbed from the intestine. Because iron from animal sources is more easily absorbed, concerns are sometimes raised about the potential for iron deficiency in people on the vegetarian diet. This concern may be offset by the richness of vitamin C in plant sources compared to animal sources.

Although iron plays an important role in the functioning of your body, excessive amounts of iron can produce significant toxicity. Your body excretes iron very poorly, therefore excessive absorption of iron can be toxic, particularly to the liver, kidney and mitochondria. Toxicity is more likely to occur with intake of iron supplements. That is why it is better to obtain iron from foods, and use supplementary iron in accord with your physician's recommendation.




Dec 8, 2011 12:30am
Nice article on Iron.
Jan 6, 2012 11:00pm
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