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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.

Can You Take Too Much Iron?

Unlike some supplements, when the subject is iron, more is definitely not better. Adults shouldn't take any more than 45 mg of iron a day unless they are being treated with iron under close medical supervision.

For children, iron overdose can be especially toxic. "Iron supplements have killed young children because their needs for iron compared to an adult's are relatively low," Thomas says. If you take iron supplements, it is very important to keep them in a high, locked cabinet, far out of your children's reach. Symptoms of iron poisoning include severe vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, dehydration, and bloody stool in children.   

It's difficult for adults to overdose on iron just from food and supplements, because an adult body has systems in place to regulate the amount of iron it absorbs. However, people with the inherited condition hemochromatosis have trouble regulating their iron absorption.

Although most people only absorb about 10% of the iron they consume, people with hemochromatosis absorb up to 30%. As a result, the iron in their body can build up to dangerous levels. That excess iron can deposit in organs such as the liver, heart, and pancreas, which can lead to conditions like cirrhosis, heart failure, and diabetes. For that reason, people with hemochromatosis should not take iron supplements.

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