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How Much Iron Do You Need? continued...

You might need more iron, either from dietary sources or from an iron supplement, if you:  

  • Are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Have kidney failure (especially if you are undergoing dialysis, which can remove iron from the body)
  • Have an ulcer, which can cause blood loss
  • Have a gastrointestinal disorder that prevents your body from absorbing iron normally (such as celiac disease, Crohn's disease, or ulcerative colitis)
  • Take too many antacids, which can prevent your body from absorbing iron
  • Have had weight loss (bariatric) surgery
  • Work out a lot (intense exercise can destroy red blood cells)

If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you may also need to take an iron supplement, because the body doesn't absorb the type of iron found in plants as well as it absorbs the iron from meat.

How Do You Know If You're Iron Deficient?

"People often don't know they have anemia until they have signs or symptoms -- they appear pale or 'sallow,' are fatigued, or have difficulty exercising," Chottiner says.

If you're low in iron, you may also:

  • Feel short of breath
  • Have a fast heartbeat
  • Have cold hands and feet
  • Crave strange substances such as dirt or clay
  • Have brittle and spoon shaped nails or hair loss
  • Sores at the corner of the mouth
  • A sore tongue
  • Severe iron deficiency can cause difficulty in swallowing

If you're tired and dragging, see your doctor. "It's fairly easy to detect and diagnose the different stages of iron deficiency with a simple blood test," Thomas says. Women who are pregnant and people with a gastrointestinal disorder such as Crohn's, ulcerative colitis, or celiac disease should have their iron tested on a regular basis.

Do You Need to Take an Iron Supplement?

If your iron is low, eating a diet that is high in iron-rich foods such as fortified cereals, red meat, dried fruit, and beans may not be enough to give you what you need. Your doctor might recommend that you take an iron supplement.

Prenatal vitamins usually include iron, but not all prenatal vitamins contain the recommended amount. Check with your doctor before taking any supplement.

While you are taking iron supplements, your doctor should test your blood to see if your iron levels have improved.   

Can Iron Supplements Cause Side Effects?

Iron supplements can cause side effects, usually stomach upset such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dark stools, or constipation. Pregnant women are especially susceptible to constipation. Adding extra fiber to your diet can help relieve this symptom. A stool softener may also make you feel better.

Starting with a low dose of iron and then gradually increasing the dose to the daily recommended amount may help minimize side effects. If your iron supplements are bothering your stomach, your doctor can adjust the dose or form of iron you use. You can also try taking the supplements with food.

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