Though all essential vitamins and minerals are necessary to life, iron stands out. Iron is found in every living cell in the body, and its job is to create hemoglobin, a pigment in the blood that transports oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. Without this, life could not continue.
Iron in the body is combined with proteins and is found in enzymes that help the body metabolize protein. It also works with other nutrients to support and improve the respiratory system and strengthen the blood. A deficit of iron in the blood leads to iron deficiency anemia.
The body uses heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is found in animal foods. Non-heme is found in plant and animal foods. The body regulates non-heme iron more efficiently than it does heme iron. It is better able to store non-heme iron when it is not needed, and use it when there’s a deficit. However, non-heme iron is difficult for the body to absorb in the first place. A person can take in too much heme iron, which can lead to problems such as joint pain, diabetes, heart problems or even liver cancer.
When a person eats iron-rich food, the iron is absorbed in the upper part of the small intestine, or the duodenum. The mineral is absorbed about four hours after a meal, but only about two to four percent of it is actually used by the body. Iron is mostly stored in the liver, spleen, blood and bone marrow.
Several factors control how much iron is absorbed. Vitamins C and E both help the body absorb iron, as does hydrochloric acid in the stomach. On the other hand, oxalic acid binds with non-heme iron and can prevent the body from using it. Phosphorus, calcium and iron must be in balance for iron to be properly absorbed. Too much phosphorus hinders absorption, though if calcium combines with phosphorus it helps the body assimilate iron.
Iron in the body is different from most other minerals because it is neither used up nor destroyed. It is stored and used over and over again. Only tiny amounts are excreted.
Three Signs of Low Iron
Iron can be lost through menstruation, substantial loss of blood and growth spurts. People who have bleeding ulcers may lose iron and not know it. Pregnant women need more iron than usual to help the fetus develop its own iron supply. Signs of low iron include:
This is when the skin, fingernails or the eyes are noticeably paler than they usually are. For darker skinned people, pallor might mean the skin is ashen. However, they may notice that the palms of their hands are paler than they should be. They may notice that when they open their mouth their tongue and the tissue of their oral cavity are pale. When they pull down their lower eyelids they see that the membrane is pale. This type of pallor is caused by low levels of oxygen and red blood cells.
2. Cold Intolerance
This is also a sign of low iron and a low blood cell count. The person feels that they’re not able to stand cold temperatures that they could tolerate before. They complain of feeling cold when other people around them are comfortable, and their cold intolerance is not relieved by putting on more clothes or more blankets.
3. Restless Leg Syndrome
Restless leg syndrome is a nearly irresistible urge to move the legs. It is worse when the person is lying down, which makes it difficult to fall asleep and remain asleep. The sensations in the legs are described as creeping or burning, as if fire ants are marching through the legs.