Iron Deficiency: It’s Fairly Easy To Avoid
Iron is a very important dietary mineral. It plays a vital role in assisting the hemoglobin in transporting oxygen to muscles and organs. Without enough iron the hemoglobin will not be able to perform this function. Hemoglobin has the ability to bind with the oxygen so it can carry it throughout the body. It also has the ability to bind with carbon dioxide, although to a lesser degree, so it can carry it to the lungs where it is expelled as waste.
Iron/hemoglobin is also vital for transporting oxygen from the blood stream into the muscle cells. The equivalent of hemoglobin, but at the muscle site, is called myoglobin.
Generally speaking, the more iron/hemoglobin a person has the more efficient their cardiovascular system will be, as long as it does not surpass a certain level. If the amount of hemoglobin is excessive then the blood may become ‘sticky’ which can lead to clogged arteries, heart attack or stroke.
You may have heard of the term blood doping. This is where athletes will remove a certain amount of blood from their bodies months before a major competition. The hemoglobin will be removed and stored. In the meantime, their bodies will naturally create more hemoglobin and return to normal levels. Several weeks or months later the athlete will re-administer the previously removed hemoglobin. Now, they will have significantly more hemoglobin in their system. This will allow more oxygen to be carried to their muscles and they will be able to perform better. This is more so for endurance events. This is not only dangerous, but also illegal.
People that live at higher altitudes have naturally higher levels of iron/hemoglobin. This is an adaptation to the lower oxygen concentration at higher altitudes. The adaptation can be two-fold; it could be a genetic adaptation, or acclimatization. Some athletes use this knowledge and opt to train at altitudes forcing their bodies to create more hemoglobin to give them an advantage when they return to lower altitudes for competitions. How long the adaptation remains is uncertain.
Our bodies are very good at holding onto the iron we already have. However, with a poor diet, an iron deficiency could result. For men this can take years to show, but with women it may show after a few months. This is because women have less storage of hemoglobin and iron, but also due to menstruation where blood is lost. A deficiency can result in chronic fatigue, anemia, depression, and headaches.
Sources high in iron include liver, eggs, spinach, soy, flour, cereals, beans, legumes, and red meat. Animal sources are more easily absorbed than sources from plants. Of course, there are also pills one could take to supplement their iron intake but should not do so unless they have consulted a physician.
If too much iron is consumed, toxicity can occur which can lead to liver and heart muscle damage. However, this is very rare. In history this has occurred to individuals that ate large amounts of liver and little of anything else.