Iron helps to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body. A lack of iron can lead to iron deficiency anaemia.
Good sources of iron include:
- dried fruit – such as dried apricots
- wholegrains – such as brown rice
- fortified breakfast cereals
- soybean flour most dark-green leafy vegetables – such as watercress and curly kale
Although liver is a good source of iron, don't eat it if you are pregnant. This is because it is also rich in vitamin A which, in large amounts, can harm your unborn baby.
The amount of iron you need is: 8.7mg a day for men 14.8mg a day for women. Depending upon your diet, you might be able to get all the iron you need from food but many of us have poor diets so may not. Women who lose a lot of blood during their monthly period (heavy periods) are at higher risk of iron deficiency anaemia and may need to take iron supplements.
How much iron do you need?
It depends on your current iron levels (determined by blood tests), the form of iron supplement you take and your eating habits while taking iron.
There are several forms of iron with different dosages, comparing iron supplements is not like comparing apples to apples.
Each form of iron is absorbed differently by your body. Ferrous sulfate, the most common form of iron, is commonly recommended by doctors at a dose of 325 mg, which is equal to 65 mg of elemental iron, but for some people its absorption is accompanied by upset stomach.
Iron with food
Many people find that iron upsets their stomachs, so they take iron with meals to try and offset side effects such as nausea. Your doctor might also recommend that you take your iron supplement You might take it with a glass of orange juice because vitamin C improves the absorption of iron.
Factors that Affect Iron Absorption
Items that can decrease the body’s absorption of iron include:
- dietary or supplemental calcium
- some of the proteins found in soybeans
- dietary fibre
- phytates, found in legumes and whole grains
- plant-based compounds called polyphenols, including tannins (found in tea, wine, fruits, vegetables, nuts)
Items that can increase the body’s absorption of non-heme iron include:
- heme iron (found in meat, poultry and fish)
- vitamin C (orange juice, citrus fruits).
Should you take an iron supplement with water?
It’s hard to swallow any supplement without water! Iron supplements are best absorbed when taken with an 8-ounce glass of water on an empty stomach.
Orange juice can be substituted for water (or a squeeze of lemon in your water) for enhanced iron absorption. However, certain beverages should be avoided because they can inhibit iron absorption, including:
- milk or other calcium-rich drinks
- beverages high in caffeine
Why should you drink orange juice with an iron supplement?
Vitamin C and citric acid are often touted by nutrition experts as “iron boosters.” That’s why orange juice, vitamin C and lemonade are suggested with iron supplements.
One of the simplest ways to improve the body’s absorption of non-heme iron is the addition of Vitamin C: simply adding a squeeze of lemon to your water or taking a vitamin C supplement can help you get the most out of your iron-rich foods or iron supplements.
Some foods and supplements you consume that could be iron inhibitors, such as coffee, tea, antacid tablets and dairy products.
Where is the iron absorbed?
The majority of the iron absorbed from digested food sources or supplements is absorbed in the small intestine, specifically the duodenum. Iron enters the stomach where it is exposed to stomach acid and changed into a form that allows it to be easily absorbed. From there it enters the mucosal sites of the duodenum (the first section of the small intestine) where most of the iron absorption takes place.
How long does it take for iron to dissolve in the stomach?
Most iron supplements dissolve in the stomach in approximately 20-30 minutes.
Some supplements claim to have a slow release mechanism. These vitamins and pills usually rely on a chemical coating to slow down the absorption. For example, a probiotic supplement may use an enteric coating to help it survive the acidic environment of your stomach.
Can I take more than the recommended dose of iron?
Do not take more than the recommended dose of iron. It is important that you take an iron supplement according to the directions on the packaging, unless otherwise directed by your doctor or healthcare provider.