Iron is an important mineral our bodies need for proper growth, energy, and development. Iron is a part of hemoglobin, the protein that transports oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues (NIH, 2022). It also helps our bodies store and use oxygen, as well as plays a role in the function of enzymes. Your body needs the right amount of iron to function normally. Too little iron can cause iron-deficiency anemia and lead to symptoms of fatigue, weakness, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath. Too much iron from taking supplements can cause iron poisoning. Checking your iron levels with a blood test can help ensure you’re getting the right amount of iron for optimal health. Read on to learn how you can easily measure your iron levels at home, as well as the symptoms of iron deficiency.
What function does iron have in the body?
Iron is a mineral that has many functions in the human body. Iron’s primary function is its role in the production of red blood cells. Iron is needed to create hemoglobin, the part of red blood cells that carry oxygen from the lungs to the tissues and remove carbon dioxide from the body’s cells back to the lungs (Red Cross, 2021). Most iron in the body is stored as hemoglobin, and adequate hemoglobin is needed to ensure enough oxygen reaches the body’s cells. Iron is important in the production and function of various cells and hormones, including the immune system (Harvard, 2020). Iron is stored in the spleen, liver, and bone marrow as ferritin. The protein transferrin delivers iron throughout the body.
Types of iron
There are two forms of dietary iron; heme and non-heme. Knowing the difference is important in ensuring you get enough iron from your diet.
Heme iron is found exclusively in meat, poultry, fish and seafood. Heme iron is also known as animal iron. Of the two forms of iron, heme iron can be absorbed the most easily by the body (Harvard, 2020).
Non-heme iron is mainly found in vegetable products, such as bread and wholemeal products, legumes, nuts, and in vegetables such as spinach, bok choy and Swiss chard. Non-heme iron is more difficult for the human body to absorb. Absorption can be improved by consuming vitamin C at the same time as non-heme iron (Harvard, 2020).
What is iron testing used for?
Iron tests are commonly used to:
- Check for iron deficiency, a cause of iron-deficiency anemia
- Check if iron levels are too high, often from excessive supplement use
- See if treatments for unhealthy iron levels are effective
How does iron deficiency occur?
Iron deficiency occurs when the stores of iron in your body are too low. Since blood contains iron, iron deficiency often occurs in individuals that experience blood loss or have increased iron needs. Iron deficiency can occur due to chronic blood loss (such as menstruation or bleeding ulcers), pregnancy, chronic diseases, a low-iron diet, or a disorder that limits the absorption of iron. Iron deficiency is common in girls and women with heavy periods or who become pregnant (Mayo Clinic, 2022). People who do not eat animal products may also have low iron due to a lack of easily absorbed heme-iron in their diet.
Iron deficiency anemia
Iron deficiency anemia occurs when your body doesn’t have enough iron to produce hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the part of the red blood cells that gives blood its red color and carries oxygenated blood throughout your body. If you don’t consume enough iron, are unable to absorb it, or lose blood regularly, your body may not be able to produce adequate hemoglobin and anemia may occur (Mayo Clinic, 2022).
Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia
Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia and can cause the following symptoms:
- Pale skin
- Quickly out of breath
- Heart palpitations
- Sweating more than usual
- The feeling that you (almost) pass out
Many of these symptoms can be mistaken for other conditions, which is why anemia can go undetected for long periods of time. If you have symptoms you suspect could be from iron-deficiency anemia, check your iron levels.
How to measure iron levels
Iron, ferritin, and hemoglobin can be measured using a blood test. These tests can be performed at a doctor’s office or from home. Homed-IQ’s Anemia Test measures iron, hemoglobin, and ferritin levels. This blood test can be taken from home before being sent to the laboratory for analysis. This test only requires a few drops of blood from a finger prick and can be completed at your convenience.
Treating iron deficiency
Iron deficiency is usually treated with iron supplements or making dietary changes. The underlying cause of the deficiency, such as blood loss or poor nutrient absorption, may also be treated. Mild iron deficiency can be treated by changes in diet. The amount of iron in food can vary, but meat, fish and seafood contain relatively high amounts of iron. For example, beef contains an average of 2.5 mg of iron per 75 grams, and 3 oysters contain approximately 7 mg of iron (USDA, 2020). For those that do not eat meat, tofu and legumes are a good source of iron. Chickpeas contain 6.2 mg of iron per 100 grams, and tofu contains 5.4 mg. An adult woman needs 15 mg of iron per day and an adult man about 11 mg (Voedingscentrum). Women generally need more iron, as women lose a lot of blood during menstruation.
If you struggle to obtain enough iron through food or your deficiency is more severe, you may need to take iron supplements. Only take supplements under the direction of your GP and do not exceed the recommended daily dose. Excessive use of iron supplements to correct a deficiency could result in blood iron levels that are too high, which can cause liver damage and damage to the digestive system (Watson, 2018).
Iron has many important functions in the human body. It is important to eat an iron-rich diet and check your iron levels to ensure anemia does not occur. You can easily check your iron, ferritin, and hemoglobin levels from home with Homed-IQ. See our complete test portfolio here.
Food Sources of Iron | Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (n.d.). https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/resources/2020-2025-dietary-guidelines-online-materials/food-sources-select-nutrients/food-1?_ga=2.113439879.1431372811.1671538147-1812625216.1668105673
Harvard. (2019). Iron. Harvard School of Public Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/iron/
Iron deficiency anemia – Symptoms and causes. (2022, January 4). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/iron-deficiency-anemia/symptoms-causes/syc-20355034
National Institutes of Health. (2022). Office of Dietary Supplements – Iron. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-Consumer/
Voedingscentrum. (n.d.). IJzer in voeding. https://www.voedingscentrum.nl/encyclopedie/ijzer.aspxVoedingscentrum
Watson, S. (2018, January 13). Iron Poisoning. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/iron-poisoning
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