Maybe you are wondering whether the wording of our heading is not a bit exaggerated. But in fact we would not be able to survive without iron. Because it is everywhere in our body, more precisely in the red blood cells, and ensures that every muscle and every cell is supplied with enough oxygen. But that's just one reason why an adequate supply of this trace element is so important. For example, a functioning immune system is dependent on iron. We have summarized everything you need to know about iron, its functions and in the event of a defect.
What does the body need iron for?
Our body contains an average of between three and four grams of iron. Two thirds of them are responsible for the main function - the transport of oxygen in our blood. It is present in hemoglobin (the red blood pigment), where it binds the inhaled oxygen and thus makes it available to our entire body. Your muscles in particular are extensively supplied with oxygen, for which myoglobin, the "muscle hemoglobin", is responsible.
Iron is primarily responsible for cellular respiration. Without these, neither organs nor muscles could function properly, because the oxygen is needed in the cells to generate energy. The remaining third in the human organism is stored in various organs and in the bone marrow. Here it serves as a kind of buffer for the formation of hemoglobin.
Since iron is also involved in cell formation, you will not be surprised that your immune system depends on a positive iron concentration in the blood. The reason for this are the so-called leukocytes, or white blood cells, which need the iron to form lymphocytes and antibodies. They detect viruses and bacteria in your body, prevent them from spreading and kill them.
Finally, iron plays a very important role in your hormonal balance. It is used as a kind of building material for the formation of various hormones and enzymes, such as serotonin - the happiness hormone -, dopamine and various sleep hormones. If you don't adequately meet your daily iron requirements, hormone production will be reduced and various problems can arise.
This leads us to the next important question:
What is the iron requirement?
You already guessed it: the recommended amount of the trace element varies depending on age and gender. Babies need almost no iron (0.5 mg) in the first four months of life. After that, the need for both boys and girls increases to eight milligrams and only changes again at the time of pre-puberty. With growth spurts, especially in boys, and the onset of menstruation in girls, the iron requirement at this age increases to that of an adult.
The long-term difference is in gender. It is estimated that around seven percent of all women have an iron deficiency, because menstruation, in which iron is also lost due to blood loss, means that they have a significantly higher iron requirement. As a woman, you should therefore take 15 mg a day until menopause, afterwards and as a man ten milligrams per day are completely sufficient. An important exception are pregnant women, who are recommended to have an iron value of 30 mg per day in order to be able to take good care of the baby. As well as breastfeeding mothers who need 20 mg of iron a day.
How does iron deficiency arise and how do you recognize it?
Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide - it is estimated that almost a quarter of the world's population suffers from it. Not only pregnant and lactating women are particularly affected, but also those during puberty and during menopause. As well as the elderly, athletes, vegetarians and vegans as well as blood donors and people with digestive tract diseases.
You may be wondering why so many different groups of people belong to the "risk group". This is because iron deficiency can have different causes. There are basically three main reasons:
- Insufficient intake: Since iron can only be absorbed through food, it is important to ensure a balanced diet. Red meat is the best supplier here, which is why the need for a meat-free diet is more difficult to meet.
- Excessive losses: Not only menstrual bleeding, but also injuries that are associated with high blood loss can lead to an iron deficiency.
- An increased need: Not only pregnant and breastfeeding women should consume more iron, children and adolescents in growth phases as well as athletes who train intensively also have a higher need for this mineral.
Since iron is present in your entire organism and is therefore involved in many bodily functions, the symptoms are very broad and varied. So you may not notice them directly or associate them with a deficiency because they are so unspecific. This typically includes fatigue or exhaustion.
Other early symptoms include pallor, which is caused by the resulting lack of red blood pigment. (A pale oral mucosa is particularly noticeable and a reliable indicator.) As well as attention and concentration problems, but also mood swings. These are caused by a too low dopamine or serotonin concentration in the blood.
If an undetected deficiency manifests itself, headaches, dizziness and circulatory problems are added, and in most cases hair and fingernails become brittle. In addition, your immune system can be weakened, which means you catch infections more often than others.
This is how you cover your daily iron requirements
As already mentioned, you can supply your body with the valuable trace element primarily through (red) meat. Because it has a high proportion of hemoglobin, in which the iron is bound. Meat therefore has a high bioavailability of iron, which can be easily absorbed by the body. Iron from meat can be used up to 30% and is therefore ten times “better” than that from vegetables and legumes. One reason why vegans and vegetarians often suffer from iron deficiency.
Especially during pregnancy and breastfeeding, it becomes difficult to meet the iron requirement from purely vegetable sources. This is due to the fact that vegetable iron is processed differently in the small intestine due to its chemical compound and can hardly be absorbed in the blood. The body can only utilize one to five percent of iron from vegetables and almost ten percent from beans and soy products. In order to support the iron supply in this case, we recommend taking additional vitamin C, because it promotes iron absorption.
You can also be careful not to consume too many iron-inhibiting foods. Yes, you read that right: there are certain foods and luxury foods that can even promote iron deficiency. This primarily includes coffee and black tea as well as milk products and protein from soy.
If you have a blood count suspected of iron deficiency and this is confirmed, there are various nutritional supplements that will help you. It is important that you only take them for a certain period of time and do not overdose them, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea, circulatory problems and even liver and / or kidney damage.
That was the first of us for the most important of all trace elements. We hope you enjoyed the article and we will read us in the next blog post if we take a close look at the well-known and already mentioned vitamin C.
Best wishes and happy Easter days,
Your Sanhelios team