What Men & Women Should Know about Iron

Should you sup­ple­ment with the min­eral? In some cases, the an­swer is no At 58, with heart dis­ease in my fam­ily, I have taken a mul­ti­vi­ta­min and min­eral sup­ple­ment with iron for many years. A friend re­cently told me that men shouldn’t take sup­ple­men­tal ir

Better Nutrition - - CONTENTS - BY MELISSA DIANE SMITH — Brian M., Santa Bar­bara, Calif.

The plain truth about this key min­eral.

Iron is an es­sen­tial nu­tri­ent. It’s needed to make he­mo­glo­bin, the oxy­gen- car­ry­ing red pig­ment of blood. It also plays im­por­tant roles in en­ergy pro­duc­tion and in sup­port­ing the health of the im­mune, re­pro­duc­tive, and cen­tral ner­vous sys­tems.

As im­por­tant as this min­eral is, how­ever, get­ting too much of it in sup­ple­ment form can be dan­ger­ous. The rea­son for this is sim­ple: the body is effi cient at stor­ing iron, but it doesn’t do a good job of elim­i­nat­ing stored iron ex­cept through bleed­ing. That’s why men and post­menopausal women are gen­er­ally ad­vised not to take an iron sup­ple­ment ex­cept un­der a doc­tor’s or­ders.

The Lows and Highs of Iron

Most peo­ple know that too lit­tle iron can lead to iron- defi ciency ane­mia, which is most likely to de­velop in men­stru­at­ing and preg­nant women, ve­g­ans, peo­ple who take med­i­ca­tions that cause in­ter­nal bleed­ing, or peo­ple who have di­ges­tive dis­or­ders that in­ter­fere with iron ab­sorp­tion. But the op­po­site prob­lem— iron over­load, usu­ally due to too much sup­ple­men­tal iron— is draw­ing more at­ten­tion these days.

Re­search sug­gests that build­ing up large stores of iron in the body over the years can in­crease the pro­duc­tion of free rad­i­cals, dam­age in­ter­nal or­gans, and may in­crease the risk of di­a­betes, heart at­tack, and cancer, par­tic­u­larly in older peo­ple. In ex­am­in­ing more than 1,000 white Amer­i­cans ages 67– 96 who par­tic­i­pated in the Fram­ing­ham Heart Study, re­searchers found that only about 3 per­cent had an iron defi ciency, but 13 per­cent had iron lev­els con­sid­ered too high. The au­thors of the study con­cluded that the likely li­a­bil­ity in iron nutri­tion in el­derly white Amer­i­cans eat­ing a West­ern diet is iron over­load, not iron defi ciency.

Iron over­load can be in­her­ited— as in hemochro­mato­sis, the ge­netic iron over­load dis­or­der— or it can be ac­quired by re­ceiv­ing nu­mer­ous blood trans­fu­sions, get­ting iron in­jec­tions, or con­sum­ing high lev­els of sup­ple­men­tal iron. Ac­cord­ing to the non­profi t Iron Dis­or­ders In­sti­tute, too much iron can lead to chronic fa­tigue, joint pain, ab­dom­i­nal pain, liver dis­ease,

di­a­betes, and heart at­tack.

Data from the large Fram­ing­ham study sug­gests that the low risk of heart dis­ease among pre­menopausal woman may be par­tially at­trib­ut­able to men­stru­a­tion and the monthly loss of iron that goes with it. Af­ter menopause, when men­stru­a­tion stops, women be­gin to catch up to men in heart dis­ease risk, sug­gest­ing that higher iron stores may be a fac­tor.

Some stud­ies also link high iron lev­els with di­a­betes. For ex­am­ple, among 32,000 women fol­lowed for 10 years in the Nurses’ Health Study, those with the high­est lev­els of stored iron were nearly three times as likely to have di­a­betes as those with the low­est lev­els. Other stud­ies have shown that when peo­ple with high lev­els of stored iron do­nate blood reg­u­larly, their in­sulin sen­si­tiv­ity and risk of di­a­betes de­crease.

Iron Rec­om­men­da­tions

So, what should you do to get just the right amount of this im­por­tant min­eral? The best idea is to play it safe. Try these tips:

Fo­cus on whole- food sources of iron, in­clud­ing beef, turkey, liver, dried fruit, broc­coli, peas, and sunfl ower seeds. Watch your in­take of for­tifi ed foods. Some for­tifi ed break­fast ce­re­als con­tain 100 per­cent of the Daily Value for iron. Avoid cook­ing in cast- iron skil­lets be­cause iron fi lings can get into food. Un­less they’ve been di­ag­nosed with a defi ciency, most men and post­menopausal women should take an iron- free multi ( see sidebar). If you’re a post­menopausal woman or a man con­cerned about the pos­si­bil­ity of iron over­load, many doc­tors ad­vise do­nat­ing blood. To de­ter­mine your iron sta­tus, ask your doc­tor for a com­plete panel of tests, in­clud­ing CBC, serum iron, serum fer­ritin, iron serum trans­fer­rin sat­u­ra­tion, to­tal iron- bind­ing ca­pac­ity ( TIBC), and per­cent­age of sat­u­ra­tion. Find out more about these tests at IronDisor­ders. org.

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