Unlock your Optimal Health with Iron-Free Multivitamins
Introduction: What are the two ‘forms’ of iron we consume?
Iron is a vital mineral that naturally occurs in two forms: heme and nonheme. Both forms of dietary iron are necessary for proper body function, but heme iron makes up around 95 percent of the body’s functional iron.
The human body is more efficient at absorbing heme iron from food (such as plant sources, animal products, and iron-fortified foods like cereals). In contrast, nonheme iron is exclusively found in animal products (such as meat) and is less readily absorbed.
Iron is an essential nutrient required to carry out vital functions. It is crucial during childhood or for pregnant/lactating women as it is critical for growth and development. The body uses iron to produce hemoglobin, a protein that enables red blood cells to transport oxygen from the lungs to different body parts.
Why do we need heme and nonheme iron?
Iron is an essential nutrient that the body requires to carry out numerous vital functions. Iron deficiency can lead to severe health complications.
Iron is crucial during childhood and for pregnant or lactating women as it is essential for growth and development. The body uses iron to produce hemoglobin, a protein that enables red blood cells to transport oxygen from the lungs to different body parts. Additionally, myoglobin, another protein required to transport oxygen to the muscles, is also produced with the help of iron.
Iron also plays a critical role in hormone production, and imbalances can result from iron deficiencies or surpluses. Therefore, ensuring adequate iron intake is essential. Although most people obtain sufficient iron from their diet, iron deficiencies are common. Iron supplements may be necessary for those with an iron deficiency.
What are the symptoms of iron deficiency in your body?
Iron deficiency affects a significant portion of the global population, with many suffering from mild conditions.
However, most individuals with mild iron deficiency are unaware of its impact. While mild iron deficiency typically does not result in noticeable symptoms, a prolonged lack can lead to a more severe condition known as iron deficiency anemia. This occurs when the body cannot generate enough red blood cells to transport oxygen to various organs, muscles, and extremities. If you experience low iron levels or iron deficiency anemia, you may encounter the following symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Pale skin
- Heart palpitations
- Spoon-shaped nails
- A sore tongue or difficulty swallowing
- Difficulty regulating the body temperature or frequently feeling cold
- Hair loss
- Changes in the way food tastes
- Painful open sores in the corners of the mouth
- Cravings for non-food items, such as dirt (also known as pica)
- An uncontrollable urge to move your legs or restless leg syndrome
- Difficulty concentrating
- Hearing ringing, buzzing, or hissing sounds in your head
- More frequent bouts of illness
- Lack of energy
Some of these symptoms may occur when you have low levels of iron in your body, but not everyone experiences all of these symptoms unless the condition has progressed to ‘iron deficiency anemia.’
People prone to iron deficiency should have their iron levels checked regularly to ensure that dietary iron is being received from natural sources.
What is the recommended daily intake of iron?
In Canada, the recommended dietary allowance for iron varies by age, gender, and life stage. As of the current knowledge cutoff in 2021, the nutritional allowances for iron are:
- Infants aged 0-6 months: 0.27 milligrams per day
- Infants aged 7-12 months: 11 milligrams per day
- Children aged 1-3 years: 7 milligrams per day
- Children aged 4-8 years: 10 milligrams per day
- Males aged 9-13 years: 8 milligrams per day
- Females aged 9-13 years: 8 milligrams per day
- Males aged 14-18 years: 11 milligrams per day
- Females aged 14-18 years: 15 milligrams per day
- Males aged 19-50 years: 8 milligrams per day
- Females aged 19-50 years: 18 milligrams per day
- Males aged 51 years and older: 8 milligrams per day
- Females aged 51 years and older: 8 milligrams per day
It's important to note that specific individuals may require more or less iron depending on their health status, activity level, and other factors, and it's always best to consult a healthcare professional for personalized recommendations.
But what happens if there’s an excess of iron?
Taking excessive amounts of iron can pose a variety of risks to one's health.
One primary concern is that high doses of iron can interfere with the body's ability to absorb zinc, potentially leading to a nutritional deficiency.
Additionally, the risks associated with iron intake tend to increase as the dosage becomes higher. In extreme cases where an individual ingests an excessive amount of iron in relation to their body weight, it can result in serious health complications such as convulsions or a coma. While those with hemochromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes the body to accumulate toxic levels of iron, are at an increased risk of iron poisoning, it can happen to anyone. Those with hemochromatosis may also be more susceptible to conditions such as liver cancer, heart disease, and cirrhosis of the liver. It's important to note that iron poisoning is a severe condition that can occur in anyone, regardless of whether or not they have hemochromatosis.
What are the symptoms of iron poisoning?
Although the incidence of iron poisoning has decreased over time, it remains a serious issue. Excessive intake of iron supplements can lead to iron poisoning in anyone. The initial symptoms of iron poisoning usually emerge within the first six hours and may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Black or bloody stools
- Vomiting blood
Often, these symptoms seem to improve in around 24 hours, but if serious complications occur, you should call your healthcare provider or visit the hospital.
These more severe symptoms would include:
- Fast or weak pulse
- Low blood pressure
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin due to liver damage)
- Shortness of breath and fluid in the lungs
- Grayish or bluish color in the skin
Iron poisoning would occur if children take doses higher than 35 mg per kg of body weight, and if adults take doses higher than 20 mg per kg of body weight.
Why Choose a Multivitamin without Iron?
There are a few other reasons why someone might choose multivitamins without iron:
Excess retention by the body:
Choosing a multivitamin that doesn't contain iron may be an intelligent choice because excess iron retention in the body can be risky for your health.
Long-term iron surplus may lead to liver damage and diabetes. If you already have sufficient iron intake, additional doses may not be needed, and the input should be limited to 45 milligrams per day. Men and postmenopausal women should seek medical advice before taking other iron supplements. If your doctor has advised you to take extra iron, it is best to take it on an empty stomach for optimal digestion. You may also take it with a glass of orange juice, as vitamin C enhances iron absorption. If you experience stomach discomfort, taking it with a small amount of food may be necessary. Avoid consuming it with milk, calcium, or whole grains, as they can decrease iron absorption.
Iron overload is a potential health risk for individuals with hemochromatosis, which causes excessive iron absorption from food and supplements. Therefore, it is advised to avoid multivitamins with iron in such cases to prevent iron overload and related complications.
A varied diet that includes red meat, poultry, fish, and fortified cereals can provide adequate amounts of iron for most individuals. Therefore, taking a multivitamin with iron on top of a diet that already meets the iron requirements could lead to excessive iron intake, which is not recommended.
High doses of iron can be toxic, especially for children who may accidentally overdose on supplements. Therefore, taking a multivitamin with iron increases the risk of toxicity, and it is best to keep the supplement out of children's reach.
Some individuals prefer to take multivitamins without iron due to personal preference or side effects such as constipation or upset stomach when taking iron supplements. It is always advisable to consult a doctor or a registered dietitian before changing the supplement regimen.
Suppose you are concerned that you may not receive all the vitamins and minerals you need from your current diet. In that case, you may consider taking a multivitamin or dietary supplement.
What are some natural sources of iron?
A wide variety of foods, both plant and animal-based, naturally contain iron, making it easy for most individuals to obtain sufficient amounts of this essential nutrient from their diets. Lean meats, seafood, nuts, beans, vegetables, and fortified grain products all serve as natural sources of iron. Additionally, there are many excellent sources of iron, such as kidney beans, sardines, chickpeas, dark chocolate, beef liver, beef, potatoes, lentils, fortified breakfast cereals, oysters, white beans, spinach, tofu, tomatoes, and cashew nuts.
The Bottom Line
Increasing iron intake can be beneficial for addressing iron deficiency, but it is essential to be aware of the risks associated with taking too much iron.
Overconsumption of iron is commonly linked to unnecessary iron supplementation, which can cause side effects like abdominal pain, constipation, vomiting, nausea, and changes in the stool. In contrast, natural dietary sources of iron are typically well-regulated by the body, as they can control iron absorption from food.
The absorption of iron from dietary supplements, on the other hand, is less regulated, as the intestines cannot prevent the buildup of excess iron. Thus, it is better to opt for a multivitamin without iron if you must address nutritional gaps, as taking an iron-containing supplement without deficiency can be hazardous.
It is crucial to consult a doctor and check iron levels before taking any iron supplement, as excessive iron intake can have detrimental effects.