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Choosing an Iron Supplement

By Lori Newell ; Updated July 27, 2017

Your body needs iron to function properly. Iron is found in proteins and enzymes. It helps your body transport oxygen. It also supports cell growth. The largest concentration of iron in the body is found in your hemoglobin, which is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen. If you do not get enough iron you will begin to feel fatigued and have decreased immunity. This can lead to a condition called anemia. If this occurs, your doctor may suggest an iron supplement.

Make Sure You Need a Supplement

Since iron can build up to toxic levels if too much is taken, make sure you talk to your doctor to make sure you need a supplement. Individuals who tend to need supplements include pregnant women, infants at below normal weight, teenage girls, vegetarians, women with heavy periods, women on birth control and those with kidney or gastrointestinal diseases who may be unable to absorb iron properly. Iron supplements are usually recommenced when symptoms of iron deficiency are present and your blood tests confirm low levels of iron.

Look for Ferrous Sulfate

Iron can be found in multivitamins or it can come separately. Iron supplements can contain either the ferric form of iron or the ferrous form of iron. Supplements that contain ferrous iron are best absorbed by the body. Ferrous iron has three types, ferrous sulfate, ferrous fumarate, and ferrous gluconate. Ferrous sulfate is the preferred type. However, it also causes the most gastrointestinal side effects. Ferrous fumarate, and ferrous gluconate are not absorbed as well, but they tend to be better tolerated. All three forms contain varying amounts of what is called elemental iron, which iron refers to the amount of iron your body will actually absorb from the tablet. This may be different from the total amount the iron the pill contains. Once your physician recommends how much iron you need, check the labels carefully to make sure you are getting the type with the right amount of essential iron.

Try Different Forms

Iron supplements can come in tablet or liquid form, which can be taken in drops. Tablets can be regular, coated or extended-release form. The regular tablet forms are best absorbed by the body and are the least expensive. Liquid and drop forms are good for those that have trouble swallowing and for children. Because of the gastrointestinal side effects of taking regular iron capsules, you may wish to try extended-release pills. Unfortunately, the iron in extended-release pills is not absorbed as well.

Consider the Side Effects

When choosing an iron supplement, you may need to try a few to see which ones cause the least amount of side effects. Iron supplements can cause constipation, nausea, vomiting and dark stools. You may need to try different forms of iron supplements to find the one that you tolerate best. In addition, certain foods inhibit iron absorption and others increase it. Vitamin C is one of the most recommend vitamins to help iron absorption. Some iron supplements come with vitamin C added.

Avoid Taking Too Much Iron

It is possible to take too much iron. Accidental overdose of iron can be fatal in children under 6 years of age. Too much iron can be found in the blood and stored in the liver and heart. Conditions such as cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, heart disease, hemochromatosis and organ damage can occur when there is too much iron in the body. Too much iron in the blood can damage blood vessels and play a part in raising your LDL or "bad" cholesterol levels. Taking an iron supplement can cause gastrointestinal symptoms; it is best tolerated if taken with food. In addition, iron supplements may interact and decrease the efficiency of other medications you may be taking. You should be especially careful if you take herbal remedies. Getting adequate iron through your diet is still the best choice, unless your doctor recommends supplements.

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