This post is part of the series Nutrient Spotlight... meant to explore the what, why, where, and how of important dietary players, with some culinary inspiration to get you started.
This edition of Nutrient Spotlight highlights iron — an essential mineral found in every cell of the human body.
What is it? // Why do I need it?
Iron functions primarily as a carrier of oxygen in the blood, increasing blood supply and promoting tissue growth. Iron also provides energy, and plays supporting roles in immune health, promoting strong hair, skin and nails, as well as female fertility. It is crucial a woman increases iron stores prior to pregnancy, as the female body often uses its own iron to supplement the growing baby, putting the woman at risk of postpartum anemia. Low maternal levels may also increase risk of infections, preterm delivery + low infant birth weight.
Additionally, adequate iron levels help protect against lead absorption, and can help mitigate the effects for those exposed to lead. In conjunction with a diet rich in calcium and vitamin C — two nutrients that improve iron absorption — the body is able to not only limit the absorption of lead but also promote its excretion.
Iron deficiency is not uncommon in the United States, affecting as much as 7% of the population. Symptoms of deficiency include fatigue, dizziness, lightheadedness, fast heart rate or sensation of an abnormal heartbeat, shortness of breath, brittle nails, pallor, or a craving for ice and, in severe cases, for other “non-foods” like detergent, chalk, dirt – a disorder called pica. (Learn about the many different types of anemia from the Mayo Clinic.)
Excess iron, from diet and/or supplementation, may cause constipation or result in other forms of mild to serious GI distress. Extremely high iron levels are not too common, but may raise disease risk, most dangerously for a genetic disorder called hemochromatosis (if predisposed), coma or worse.