Should You Take Iron Supplements?

Updated on September 30th, 2020
Who Should Take Iron Supplements

Iron is a nutrient that plays many essential roles in your body, including keeping you full of energy and health. Low iron levels are normal, causing unpleasant symptoms like poor concentration, tiredness,  and regular illness bouts. However, iron deficiency is not always simple to detect, particularly in its initial stages.

Iron supplements are an excellent way to reverse a deficiency, particularly if diet changes alone are not successful.

This write up talks about iron supplements, who may benefit from them, and the best ways to get your iron levels tested.

Symptoms of low iron levels 

Low iron levels are common, particularly in specific subsets of the population. If left unattended, they may develop into a more severe condition known as IDA (iron deficiency anemia).

Iron deficiency anemia is a disease in which your blood doesn’t contain healthy adequate oxygen-carrying RBC (red blood cells). As a result, you can have the following symptoms:

  • a lack of energy
  • tiredness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • shortness of breath
  • difficulty regulating your body temperature or often feeling cold
  • more frequent bouts of illness
  • heart palpitations
  • pale skin
  • hearing hissing, ringing, or buzzing noises inside your head
  • headaches
  • a sore tongue or difficulty swallowing
  • itchiness
  • hair loss
  • changes in the way food tastes
  • painful open sores in the corners of the mouth
  • spoon-shaped nails

cravings for non-food items, such as ice or dirt — also known as pica

an unstoppable urge to move your legs — also known as restless leg syndrome

If you’re having any of the above signs, consider discussing diagnostic testing options with your healthcare provider to identify or rule out IDA or low iron levels.

Remember that these symptoms are generally most detectable when low iron levels progress to iron deficiency anemia. Thus, you can have low iron levels without having any of these symptoms, particularly in the initial stages of iron depletion.

Getting your iron levels tested frequently can be a great way to identify and treat low iron levels before developing into iron deficiency anemia.

Who Should Take Iron Supplements

Iron supplements can treat iron deficiency anemia or reverse low iron levels. They can produce results faster than diet interventions and are often regarded as the treatment method of choice [1].

These supplements can be incredibly helpful among people prone to low iron levels, especially if they cannot maintain a good iron status through diet alone, including :

  • pregnant people
  • young children and infants 
  • frequent blood donors
  • people experiencing heavy periods
  • people with gastrointestinal disorders, such as celiac disease, 
  • people with cancer
  • Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • those who have undergone gastric surgery
  • people with cardiac failure
  • those taking iron-depleting medicines, such as those used to minimize stomach acid
  • those following a vegan or vegetarian diet
  • people regularly partaking in heavy exercise
  • people with alcoholism
  • people with blood disorders, such as sickle cell anemia or thalassemia 

It’s essential to note that taking iron supplements when they’re unnecessary could damage your health, partially because they typically have high doses of iron, causing digestive issues and reducing other nutrients’ absorption in your gut [2].

Taking these supplements erroneously may also cause cell damage, and in extreme cases, result in coma, organ failure, or death. Negative adverse effects can occur in anyone, but appear mostly fatal in children.

Therefore, always talk to your healthcare professional about getting your child’s or your iron status tested before taking iron supplements, and always adhere to your physicians’ dosage recommendations.

[Also Read: Iron Rich foods for Kids]

Getting tested for low iron 

Testing your blood is one of the most acceptable ways to diagnose IDA or low iron levels, as the conditions can be challenging to diagnose based on only symptoms. One positive way is to consider how your supplemental iron and dietary intakes compare with the prescribed iron intakes. To understand the importance of requesting particular blood tests over others, it may be useful to comprehend iron deficiency’s 3 main stages.

Stages of iron deficiency

Low iron levels typically progress to iron deficiency anemia through these stages :

Mild iron deficiency. This condition comprises low iron stores with ferritin levels between 10–30 mcg/L, as well as a normal RBC (red blood cell) count with hemoglobin above 12 g/dL and hematocrit above 41% for men and 36% for women.

Mild functional iron deficiency. This condition consists of reduced iron stores with ferritin levels lower than 10 mcg/L but a normal red blood cell count with hemoglobin above 12 g/dL and hematocrit above 41% men and 36% for women.

Iron deficiency anemia (IDA). This condition consists of reduced iron stores with ferritin levels lower than 10 mcg/L. A red blood cell count is dropping below normal range with hemoglobin under 12 g/dL and hematocrit under 36% for women and 41% for men.

[Also Read: Excellent Iron Rich Foods]

Best tests to diagnose your iron status

Hematocrit and Hemoglobin tests are generally used to screen for iron deficiency. However, they’re not considered specific nor sensitive and tend only to identify IDA — not the initial stages of iron depletion.

Identifying the earlier stages of depletion is advantageous, as doing so allows you to address the problem instantly — be it through supplements or diet modifications  — rather than letting it progress to iron deficiency anemia before taking action.

Serum ferritin is presently regarded as the most efficient and cost-effective test for diagnosing an iron deficiency, particularly in its initial stages.

However, few medical practitioners routinely test for ferritin levels, so you may have to request this test particularly, in addition to hematocrit and hemoglobin tests, when visiting your physicians’ clinic.

[Also Read: Best Foods for Boosting Iron]

How often should you get tested?

People with no history of low iron levels may opt to get their levels tested once per year to detect a potential iron deficiency in its initial stages.

With the intake of iron supplements, improvements in hemoglobin may be seen within four weeks. However, it generally takes at least three months to entirely replete hemoglobin levels and sometimes even longer replete ferritin levels.

Therefore, individuals currently taking supplements to treat an iron deficiency should wait at least three months after starting the treatment, if not slightly longer, before getting their ferritin and hemoglobin levels retested.

That said, a small proportion of individuals either experience side effects or do not respond to oral iron supplements. As such, they may require other treatments.

Therefore, if you have iron-deficiency anemia and fail to notice any improvement in symptoms within the initial four to eight weeks of taking a supplement, consider getting your hemoglobin levels rechecked to test whether you’re responding to the treatment.

Bottom Line

Iron supplements can help reverse iron deficiency when dietary changes alone are not successful. Certain individuals, including infants, pregnant women, heavy exercisers, young children,  and those with certain medical issues, are more prone to low iron levels. They should get their iron levels tested frequently.

If you’re contemplating getting your iron levels checked, make sure to request a hematocrit and hemoglobin test and a ferritin test. This combo is most effective at diagnosing an iron deficiency, even in its initial stages.

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