How Does Iron Help the Body?

By Janet Renee, MS, RD

Too much or too little of most nutrients can have negative effects on your health. While iron has many functions vital to human health, too much of it leads to iron overload, which damages your organs and can lead to heart or liver failure. The key is to get the right amount your body needs to function properly. Consult your health care provider if you're concerned about your iron intake.

Helps Make Red Blood Cells

Iron is a necessary component for your body to produce red blood cells. In fact, the large majority of the iron in your body -- an estimated 70 percent -- is found in your red blood cells. When you fail to get enough iron, your body is unable to make enough red blood cells, which supply nutrients and energy, among other things. This is why fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of having low red blood cells.

Carries Oxygen

Iron is incorporated into hemoglobin in your blood, which is a crucial protein. As part of hemoglobin, iron helps transport oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. It also plays a role in muscle function -- iron is incorporated into an iron-binding protein in your muscles called myoglobin, where it serves as an extra source of oxygen for your muscles. When you engage in physical activity for an extended period, myoglobin releases the oxygen into your muscles so they can keep up with the activity demand.

Performs Other Functions

About 25 percent of the iron in your body is found in a storage form called ferritin, where it serves as a backup in the event that your intake declines. Deficiency occurs when intake is inadequate for an extended period of time and ferritin becomes depleted. A small percentage of iron is incorporated into proteins necessary for energy production and breathing. In addition, iron is a component of a variety of enzymes with various functions, such as aiding in digestion.

Dietary Intake and Sources

You get iron in your diet from sources such as meat, fish, poultry and some vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, leafy greens, tofu, lima beans, beets and cabbage. Heme iron is found in animal foods, and nonheme iron is found in plant foods. Heme iron is better absorbed than nonheme iron. Vitamin C facilitates iron absorption, so eating vitamin-C rich foods along with iron-containing plant foods helps the mineral get into your cells, increasing the amount your body absorbs.The recommended dietary allowance is 8 milligrams for males under age 50 and 18 milligrams for women under 50.

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