Dietary iron is necessary for a number of functions in the body. If people do not get enough iron they can become sick, and in extreme cases of iron deficiency people can die. Iron deficiency is a very common nutritional deficiency that can be easily managed by increasing iron intake with dietary changes and supplements. It is important to avoid consuming too much iron, as this trace element can become dangerous in high concentrations. A doctor can provide a patient with advice on daily iron recommendations, but generally adult males should take around 8 milligrams while adult women should take 18 milligrams, unless they are pregnant, in which case the recommended intake is 27 milligrams.
One of the most important roles of dietary iron is as a component in hemoglobin and myoglobin, both used as oxygen transporters. The iron makes these transporters much more efficient, ensuring that the cells get enough oxygen. People with iron deficiencies can develop anemia and will feel weak, fatigues, and tired. In addition, iron is a key component in many proteins and enzymes that regulate a variety of reactions in the body.
Lack of iron can inhibit cell growth and interfere with cell differentiation, the process that allows cells to develop into different types. The ability to differentiate is critical, as different cells fulfill different functions in the body and they constantly need to be renewed. Prolonged iron deficiencies will make people ill as the interconnected systems in their bodies that rely on dietary iron start to fail.
There are two different types of dietary iron. Heme iron, a more absorbable form, is found in meats, especially dark meats like liver. Non-heme iron can be obtained through eating leafy greens and legumes like lentils and peanuts. The body cannot absorb this form as readily. One method for making non-heme iron more accessible is to eat iron-rich foods with vitamin C. People can also take iron supplements if their diets are not meeting their needs.
People with iron deficiencies tend to have obvious symptoms. In addition to making people fatigued, anemia also tends to make people very pale. These physical signs can be confirmed with a blood test that will document anemia. Depending on the severity of the anemia, treatments can include supplementation, blood transfusions, and iron supplements to get the patient's iron levels back up. Once the patient is stabilized, recommendations may be made to help the patient avoid a deficiency in the future by consuming more dietary iron.