Iron is critical to life. It is part of the hemoglobin molecule in red blood cells, involving the mobilization of oxygen from lungs to tissues and carbon dioxide from tissues to lungs. Iron is also part of enzymes responsible for energy production and DNA synthesis.
Iron deficiencies are common in our society particularly among infants, adolescences, pregnant women and the elderly. Inadequate intake of iron is common among vegetarians particularly vegans. Physically active individuals require more iron than sedentary people. A positive correlation between iron intake and physical performance has been established. Evidence indicates that even a slight iron deficiency can adversely affect physical performance.
Decreased absorption of Iron can occur due to a lack of hydrochloric acid secretions in the stomach, a condition that is associated with frequent over feeding, chronic stress and aging. Iron deficiencies can lead to anemia, cognitive disabilities, impaired immunity, fatigue and loss of strength. Serum ferritin is the best test/indicator for determining iron status.
It is generally recommended to take iron supplementation in accordance with the RDA - 10mg-12mg for men and 15mg for women. Pregnant and lactating women may need to adjust iron supplementation according to blood test.
Food rich in iron include meats, liver, nuts, seeds, parsley, dried prunes, raisins and blackstrap molasses. Nonetheless, plant derived iron has a lower bioavailability compared to animal derived iron (that is bound to hemoglobin). Since high meat consumption is associated with increased cardiovascular risk, it is not recommended to rely on meat as a healthy source of iron. Therefore, for the educated healthy consumer and particularly the physically active one, iron supplementation is recommended to "cover the bases." Nonetheless, in case of high consumption of iron fortified nutritional products (cereals, shakes or bars) it is recommended to adjust iron supplementation as to avoid iron overload. An elevated level of iron may lead to an increased oxidative stress and increased levels of free radicals, thus increasing the risk for infections and vascular damage.
In conclusion, though iron deficiencies are more prevalent than iron overload, it is important to carefully monitor iron intake so as to avoid both. Note that naturally occurring iron in food does not cause an excess but rather it is the isolated iron supplements, (if taken on the top of a multivitamins and minerals) that may cause this problem. For that matter, Vitamin C supplementation can help increase iron absorption and protect against potential side effects.