Iron is essential to human life. It is one of the most abundant but often misunderstood minerals on earth.

Especially when trying to fall pregnant, we are flooded with information about the importance of iron. Why we are all in need and why we should all be supplementing. But is this really necessary? How much do you actually need?

Iron is vital for the synthesis of DNA, which is the genetic ‘blue print’ upon which all our cells are built. Healthy DNA synthesis supports healthy growth and development. This becomes particularly important during pregnancy when you a tiny new life is growing inside you. For this reason your requirements for iron increase during pregnancy to help meet this extra demand, especially during the second and third trimester. However, if you are in the conception phase of your journey and not yet pregnant, you do not need extra iron. In fact, excess supplemental iron can do more harm than good.

How much do I need?

Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) and Upper Safe Limit (UL)

Women 19 – 50 years 18mg/day 45mg/day
Women 50 – 70 + years 8mg/day 45mg/day
Pregnancy RDI UL
14 + years 27mg/day 45mg/day
Lactation RDI UL
14 – 18 years 10mg/day 45mg/day
18 – 50 years 9mg/day 45mg/day

 

What are the best sources?

Good dietary sources of iron include

Liver                           Chicken                       Beef                            Oysters

Turkey                        Tuna                           Pork                            Fish

Soybeans                    Lentils                         Kidney beans             Molasses

Spinach                       Tofu

What about supplements?

The average Australian diet provides around 15 – 20mg of iron per day.   How much your body absorbs can depend on how much your body needs each day, especially when consumed from vegetarian sources. During times of increased need such as pregnancy, the body maximizes your dietary iron to help support this increased need. So do you need to supplement?

If you have a healthy intake of iron rich foods and your iron levels are in a healthy range, then no. If you do choose to supplement, it is best to choose a well-absorbed supplement, such as an iron amino acid chelate, and consume a dose within your RDI. This will also reduce potential side effects such as constipation and gastric upset.

Iron is also best absorbed alongside it’s cofactors, vitamin C and folate. No more than the Upper Safe Limit (UL) of 45mg per day should be taken unless under medical supervision. Excessive amounts of iron in circulation can cause critical damage to vital cells in the liver, heart and other vital organs. I like to see supplements being like an ‘insurance policy’ to help ensure sufficient intake alongside a healthy diet.

How do I know if I’m deficient?

The most common symptom of iron deficiency is lack of energy and tiredness. Other symptoms include paleness, weak immune system/tendency to cold and flu and brittle nails. However these symptoms are very general and can be caused by multiple factors, so a simple blood test from your GP is the best way to confirm your levels.

What happens if I take too much?

As mentioned earlier, iron is essential to human life. In fact it’s so essential, that to help ensure levels never become deplete, our body has no means by which to excrete iron. This mechanism is very effective to ensure we always have sufficient supply however it also means that if excess amounts of this heavy metal are consumed, it can be potentially toxic.

Iron uptake is tightly regulated by the body. If iron stores are high, the body actively decreases the amount of iron absorbed. Therefore toxicity via dietary sources is unlikely. However this decreased absorption mechanism can’t be shut off entirely. This means that stores can build up if excess supplemental iron is consumed. Excessive amounts of iron in circulation can be extremely damaging, so high dose supplementation is not recommended unless under medical supervision.

I explain more in this episode of Talking Fertility