Iron is one of the most important minerals in the body. Found in the red blood cells, its primary function is to unite copper with protein to make hemoglobin (the red coloring of the cells). It also helps make mygolobin (a globulin found in the muscle tissue), which transports oxygen to the muscles so that they have the capacity to contract. And, extremely important to the protein process, iron works with enzymes and other nutrients to improve oxygenation throughout all the bodily processes.
Iron is also one of the least assimilable minerals: difficult to absorb, difficult to keep and easy to lose. To be assimilated to any degree at all (usually ten per cent or less), iron must form up in complex compounds with copper, folic acid, vitamin B-6 and vitamin C: a person deficient in any one of these vitamins or minerals stands a chance of poor absorption of iron. In addition, there needs to be sufficient vitamin E and a proper balance between iron and calcium and phosphorus to insure assimilation. Absorption of iron is also minima) when a person has little hydrochloric acid available in the stomach during the digestive processes. Poor intestinal peristalsis contributes to poor absorption of iron, too. And a person who drinks coffee or tea, high in alkali, will short circuit absorption of iron. Then, if conditions aren't just right, the iron will be excreted through the feces. It is also lost through perspiration, excretion of bile, sloughed-off skin cells, mucous membranes and white blood cells.
The most easily assimilable forms of iron are natural sources such as brewer's yeast, desiccated liver tablets and molasses. In fact, it is not advisable to take any of the synthetic varieties of iron, at least not without the guidance of a physician: all synthetic varieties are toxic if taken in excess. As few as 900 milligrams of ferrous sulfate can kill a child, and deaths of children who eat these little red pills that resemble candy are recorded annually. Ferrous sulfate is also an antagonist of vitamin E.
If a person must take a synthetic iron supplement, ferrous iron is much more efficiently absorbed than the ferric variety, even though scientists have proven that ascorbic acid (synthetic vitamin C) given along with ferric iron improves absorption tremendously, an effect not achieved with the ferrous variety. Adelle Davis feels that ferrous gluconate (an iron and glucose compound) is the least toxic of the ferrous synthetics presently sold over-the-counter or through prescription.
Because of the various difficulties with the absorption of iron, deficiencies of iron are quite common, and deficiencies over long periods can lead to anemia, which leaves a person worn, fatigued and without energy. Since women tend toward deficiencies of iron on a monthly basis during their menstrual, cycles, they are the most prone to anemia: it is estimated that six to ten million women between the ages of 18 and 59 may have anemia or a tendency toward anemia.
Iron is absorbed in the duodenum of the upper intestinal tract, or it is absorbed directly into the bloodstream rather than by way of the lymphatic system. It ¡s then stored intracellular^ in the liver, spleen and bone marrow as ferritin and hemosiderin, with most of the iron found in hemoglobin. Iron is so precious that once it is assimilated by the body it is never destroyed: it simply leaves dead cells and moves on to help make new ones.
Aides'. Iron's primary allies are vitamin B-6, folic acid and copper. It is also more effective when taken with vitamin B-12, vitamin C, calcium, cobalt, phosphorus and hydrochloric acid. Vitamin E is also an ally of chelated iron.
Antagonists: If vitamin E is taken either with ferrous sulfate or ferrous gluconate, it becomes an antagonist, more or less cancelling out iron's chemical actions and vice versa. Anyone who takes a synthetic variety of iron should wait 10 to 12 hours before taking vitamin E.
A diet high in phytates (grain-type products) or phosphates will interfere with iron absorption, too. Those radicals form highly insoluble salts with iron that are impossible to absorb via the intestinal tract. On the other hand, a diet low in phosphates will increase assimilation of iron.
In addition, arthritic victims who are on regular steroid, chloroquine or aspirin medication run the risk of lost absorption of iron. They should periodically test their hemoglobin counts. Bolstering their diets with natural sources of iron will also insure that their bodies do not become depleted of the mineral, causing anemia.
Recommended Dietary Allowance: The National Research Council feels that 18 milligrams of iron for women and 10 milligrams for men are necessary on a daily basis; however, because of the demands on iron brought about by menstrual cycles, pregnancy and lactation, most women between the ages of 18 and 59 should consider higher dosages. Women have less iron in their bodies to begin with. Moreover, they lose up to two milligrams daily during their monthly cycles—a loss two to four times greater than the needed daily intake of average men, who get by quite well with 0.5 to 1 milligram of iron daily. Then during the third trimester of pregnancy women need up to 7.5 milligrams of iron daily. And women who breast-feed lose between 0.5 and 1 milligram of iron daily.
Babies' needs are even more dramatic than women's. In the first 25 months of life infants will grow faster than at any other time. Physicians recommend weaning babies before age one to get them on iron-plentiful food so that their voracious needs for iron can be fulfilled.
Therapeutic Dose: Twenty to one hundred milligrams daily are recommended. Because of the numerous inherent dangers of synthetic iron, any administration of synthetic iron, especially ferrous sulfate, the most common type of synthetic iron prescribed by doctors, should be carefully monitored, especially with children.
Megadose: Any dosage of 100 or more milligrams of synthetic iron a day is considered large. Over a prolonged period of time such a dosage can be toxic to some individuals, and physician should periodically check for toxic reactions.
The toxicity level for children is approximately 900 milligrams. The level varies for adults. Anyone having symptoms of toxicity should see a doctor at once. The normal signals are heartburn, nausea, constipation, diarrhea and other digestive upsets. If the condition is left untreated, damage can occur in the liver and pancreas.
Hemosiderosis (a kind of iron poisoning) usually occurs when too little vitamin B-6 is ingested or too many synthetic iron pills are taken without proper safeguards. With hemosiderosis excess iron is usually stored in the liver or spleen, causing scar formation, and the organs readily become calcified. The condition usually takes place when there is a marked red blood cell destruction through hemolytic or pernicious anemia or in cases of chronic infection.
Exhaustion, depression, general fatigue or lassitude, shortness of breath, pallor of the skin, loss of interest in sex and dizziness are the usual symptoms of an oncoming deficiency of iron. There may also be a stinging sensation in the head, the heels, the bottom of the feet, the fingertips or the shoulder joints. Flattened fingernails, a fissured (rutted) tongue, insomnia at night and sleepiness during the day are some of the symptoms of a moderate deficiency. Other little recognized symptoms of a possible deficiency are crying for no reason, painful breathing and poor hearing.
With a lack of iron anemia will eventually result, detectable through a hemoglobin count. By that time a great amount of damage, sometimes irreversible, will have been done, depending upon the type of anemia that has manifested. Hypochromic anemia is the normal kind induced by a deficiency of iron. But hemorrhagic anemia, which points to internal bleeding, may also occur, going undetected for some time except that bruises may appear for no reason or there may be tenderness or swelling that cannot be accounted for: people who give blood too often can sometimes contract this type of anemia.
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