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How Often
Should I Be Taking Iron Pills?
(Iron Supplements)

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

Original article printed in the January 15-16, 2005 issue
Reprinted under title: Iron-Clad Pills on page 15 in the April 4-5, 2009 issue of
The Mississauga News under the feature: Health & Wellness, Medical Matters.
Portrait of Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, supplied 2005
Dr. Peter W. Kujtan

Far too many people are ingesting various types of supplements without truly knowing whether they are necessary. In some cases, this can lead to harm. Iron pills consisting of Ferrous gluconate or Ferrous sulphate are one type of supplement that could lead to trouble, if used indiscriminately.

A well-balanced diet does not require extra iron. In a good diet, about 10 to 20 mg of iron will be presented to the gut daily. But only 10 percent of this is absorbed into the body. The average healthy adult loses 1 to 2 mg of iron daily. Some conditions such as menstruation, pregnancy, growth and hemorrhages can result in far greater losses.

Most iron absorption occurs in the duodenum. Iron is transported around the body by a protein called transferrin. Our body uses iron to build oxygen-transporting proteins found in red blood cells. It also plays a vital function in muscles and enzymes. Our body has a wonderful mechanism for recycling and conserving iron.

Hereditary hemochromatosis (HH) is a fairly common genetic disorder found in many Europeans. It is an autosomal recessive disorder that eventually leads to the accumulation of large amounts of iron. Excess iron tends to be deposited in various body structures and organs. The genetic location of this abnormality is known and can be tested for. Historically, this trait emerged in Northern Europe amongst people having iron deficient diets. In that environment, greater absorption of iron is favored. People who possess both copies of this recessive gene tend to absorb much more iron than necessary when presented with a typical North American diet. This group of individuals should not be taking iron supplements at all.

The HH disorder can have many vague symptoms and tends to be diagnosed later in life. Women show signs later, because they lose iron more readily through menstruation, which offsets the tendency to accumulate. The symptoms can include fatigue, abdominal pain, joint pain, depression, weight-loss and impotence. Ordering special blood tests can make the final diagnosis. Sometimes a liver biopsy is also necessary. Accumulation of iron in the liver, heart and kidney can lead to a fatal state. At other times, liver failure and transplantation becomes necessary.

The best treatment of hereditary hemochromatosis consists of regular blood removal called phlebotomy. Persons afflicted with this disorder should also avoid foods rich in iron such as organ meats. Heavy alcohol consumption in this group can also lead to cirrhosis.

On the other hand, many women tend to be iron deficient and even develop anemia. In this group, aggressive iron supplementation is recommended. Most iron pills contain between 120 to 300 mg of iron. At the end of the day, the decision to use iron pills should be made on the basis of sound clinical judgment and not as a substitute for poor diet.

Related resources:

● If you and your doctor determine that you could benefit from more iron in your blood - add plenty of dark leafy greens to your diet and consider iron supplements. If you've been struggling with fatigue or weakness due to insufficient iron levels, iron supplements could help get your energy and strength levels back on track.
Iron supplements from Wikipedia. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Iron from Office of Dietary Supplements, NIH Clinical Center, National Institutes of Health.
Generic Name: Iron Supplements - Brand Name(s): Femiron, Feosol, Fer-In-Sol from MedicineNet. WARNING: Accidental overdose of iron-containing products is a leading cause of fatal poisoning in children under 6 years of age.
Iron Deficiency Anemia from WebMD.
Iron deficiency anemia from Mayo Clinic.
Iron deficiency anemia from MedlinePlus Medical Enclopedia.

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