Iron is an essential mineral needed by the human body for growth and development. It is an essential ingredient of the red blood cells and if the red blood cells are deficient in iron, iron deficiency or iron deficiency anemia can develop.
The function of iron
All cells contain iron. Iron is part of the protein, hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to all parts of the human body. The enzymes of the human body also contain iron. Iron is used in many cell functions. The enzymes help to digest food and help with many important bodily function.
Two types of iron
Iron is contained in hemoglobin in the cells and myoglobin in the muscles. There are two types of iron, which are heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is absorbed into the blood stream through eating animal foods. Non-heme iron comes from plant foods.
Heme iron is absorbed faster than non-heme iron. It is important to get the most iron into your system by eating heme iron foods. Non-heme iron is best absorbed by eating it with heme iron foods or foods rich in vitamin C.
There is a difference between iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia. Iron deficiency occurs when the body has depleted its "stores of iron." When this iron depletion continues causing the hemoglobin in red blood cells to fall below normal, a person will develop iron deficiency anemia.
Iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia can have dire consequences particularly in the case of pregnant women and in young children.
Iron deficiency anemia
Iron deficiency anemia causes "changes in behavior and intellectual performance, reduced resistance to infection, increased susceptibility to lead poisoning, loss of appetite, tachycardia and cardiomegaly. "Iron deficiency anemia can also cause "fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain, heart problems, and problems of growth and development in children."
Iron deficiency anemia in young children causes "motor and cognitive deficits" that "cannot always be reversed with iron supplementation."
The consequences for pregnant women are "increased perinatal complications, premature delivery and low birth weight."
The causes of iron deficiency
There are two main causes of iron deficiency: "Increased iron needs and decreased iron intake or absorption."
Additional iron is needed by infants and toddlers because they are growing rapidly. Pregnant women need more iron for the growing fetus. There is a loss of blood through menstruation, blood donations and stomach or intestinal conditions.
There are also factors involved in how the body utilizes and absorbs iron. Heme iron from meat, poultry and fish is absorbed much more efficiently than non-heme iron from plants. Therefore it is important to eat heme iron rich foods along with non-heme or plant foods to get the best absorption of plant foods. Also non-heme foods eaten with vitamin C rich foods will absorb better.
Non-heme absorption is also decreased by eating or drinking coffee, tea, caffeine, legumes, whole grains, milk and dairy products and calcium with one's meal. Vegetarian diets can be low in both heme and non-heme absorption. Antacids and other medicines used for peptic ulcers, acid reflux may reduce the beneficial acids in the stomach and iron absorption.
Special recommendations from the CDC state that children from one to five years old are at the highest risk for iron deficiency. Babies who are born small need more iron. Babies should not be given cow's milk before age 12 months. At the age of six months, breastfed babies should also be fed an iron-fortified cereal or other iron rich food. Any formulas used should be iron-fortified. Children who are ages one to five years old should not get more than 24 ounces of cow, goat or soy milk per day. Excess milk can decrease the child's appetite for other iron rich foods.
Iron is the most essential ingredient in red blood cells. Without iron, the red blood cells are decreased and normal functions of the body can not be attained. The supply of oxygen to all parts of the body is decreased and therefore the body cannot function optimally. Iron is extremely important for growing babies, children, young girls who begin menstruating and pregnant women. Without an adequate supply of iron the healthy human body is compromised with the possibility of dire consequences that can lead to heart disease, complications, and even death.