The importance of iron to our health

Iron is an important mineral for health. Iron carries oxygen throughout the body. Most of the iron in the body is found in muscles, where it helps to store oxygen for use when doing physical or mental work. Iron is also important for fighting infection.

Without enough iron in our diets, iron deficiency can develop. A shortage of iron can:

  • lead to a feeling of tiredness or low of energy
  • make it hard to concentrate
  • weaken the immune system (making it hard for the body to fight an infection)
  • affect learning in children

Daily Iron Requirements

Age/Life Stage

Iron (mg/day)

Iron (mg/day)

 

Females

Males

0 to 6 months
7 to 12 months
1 to 3 years
4 to 8 years
9 to 13 years

0.27
11
7
10
8

0.27
11
7
10
8

14 to 18 years
19 to 50 years
Over 50 years

15
18
8

11
8
8

Pregnancy under 19 years
19 years and older

27
27

n/a
n/a

Vegetarians 14 to 18 years
19 to 50 years
over 50 years

26
33
15

20
14
14

Source: Dietary Reference Intakes, National Academy of Sciences (2001)

However an important thing to note. We all need iron to make hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying red pigment of blood. But iron is one of the few minerals we cannot eliminate, and accumulations in the body can rise to toxic levels. Iron is an oxidizing agent that can increase the risk of cancer and damage the heart and the arteries. High iron intake can be especially dangerous for persons with an inherited disease called hemochromatosis or iron overload disease, believed to affect as many as one million Americans. If you have any blood relatives with the disease, ask your physician about the screening test for iron overload, called the transferrin saturation test. Symptoms that could indicate iron overload include fatigue, heart palpitations, joint pain, non-specific stomach pain, impotence, and loss of menstrual period.

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