What are dangers of taking iron supplements and multivitamins containing iron?

Excess iron can cause oxidative stress and accelerate ageing

Iron is one of those minerals that everyone needs. It’s important for oxygen transport, red blood cells formation, immune function, energy and many other functions. However there is something unique about this mineral – our body doesn’t have any physiological mechanism to excrete excess iron. That’s why I would be extra careful with iron supplementation if you haven’t tested your blood iron and ferritin levels (storage form of iron)

WATCH OUT FOR MARKETING TRICKS

I see so many ads with slogans: ‘are you feeling tired or low in energy? – take iron!’. There are so many other causes for low energy and fatigue. Iron could be one of them but it’s not the only one. It’s also very common that most of the multivitamin supplements on the market contain iron. Everytime I’m looking for multivitamin supplements I really struggle to find the one without iron and copper.

It’s also quite interesting that some brands advertise iron supplements as ‘contains vitamin C for better absorption’. It’s not 100% true as vitamin C only enhances absorption of iron from food, mostly from plant sources. It doesn’t improve iron absorption from supplements. I just thought I will highlight it as it’s pretty funny marketing trick that is used very often:)

IRON OVERLOAD

If we are not deficient in iron and we take iron containing supplements we are increasing our risk of excess iron significantly. In my opinion, iron overload can be more dangerous than iron deficiency. Iron deficiency can be fairly easy to fix through appropriate diet or/and supplementation. However the only way we can get rid of excess iron is by losing blood. That’s why usually women are more prone to iron deficiency anaemia due to menstrual cycles comparing to men.

WHY EXCESS IRON CAN BE HARMFUL
  • Iron overload slows down mitochondria (an organelle that produces energy)
  • Excess iron increases free radicals which may damage our cells, DNA and accelerate ageing.
  • Iron is deposited in the liver, heart and pancreas, where it can cause cirrhosis, liver cancer and cardiac arrhythmias.
  • Iron can be recycled and reused by our body.
  • It accumulates over our life.

As you can see, iron overload can be really harmful! In general I’m avoiding multivitamins with iron and I would treat iron supplements as a last resort treatment.

HOW CAN YOU BOOST YOUR IRON LEVELS NATURALLY?

There are many ways to increase iron levels through diet. Focusing on getting iron rich food from animal sources (especially organ meats) is one of them. Iron from animal food is better absorbed than from plant sources. If you are vegan of vegetarian and rely only on plants, vitamin C can increase iron absorption. Also nettle tea or nettle tonic/tincture has been shown to boost iron levels.

DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ANIMAL AND PLANT SOURCES OF IRON

There are two major types of iron: 

  • Heme iron in ferrous state Fe 2+ (found in meat, fish and seafood) 
  • Non-heme iron in ferric state Fe3+ (mostly plant sources).

Only ferrous/heme iron is a well absorbed by the body. Ferric/non-heme iron must be reduced to ferrous state to be bioavailable and absorbed by the body. As mentioned before, vitamin C can increase the conversion which is especially important for vegans.

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