red blood cells carrying oxygen
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Why You Need Iron

Iron is a mineral that your body uses to make two proteins: hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin helps your red blood cells move oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. Myoglobin brings oxygen to your muscles. Iron is also important in making hormones, as well as tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissue.

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normal red blood cells and anemia comparison
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What If You Don’t Get Enough Iron?

You might not notice anything at first because your body will use what it has stored in your muscles, bones, liver, and elsewhere. But when these supplies run out, your red blood cells get smaller and so carry less hemoglobin. That means less oxygen gets delivered throughout the rest of your body, which is one kind of anemia.

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fatigued woman
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What Are the Symptoms of Anemia?

You might feel tired, weak, or dizzy and have pale skin, a fast pulse, cold hands, headaches, and digestive problems. A weaker immune system could make you sick more often, and your body temperature could vary more than usual. It can even affect your ability to think clearly and remember things. Children who get anemia from lack of iron sometimes develop learning problems.

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peptic ulcer
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What Causes Low Iron?

It’s more likely if your diet isn’t great or if you don’t eat much meat, fish, or poultry. It also can happen if you lose blood due to injury or illness (like ulcers or colon cancer) or you have a condition that hampers digestion. Women get it more than men, especially once their monthly cycle starts or if they’re pregnant. And iron levels can go down as you get older and start to eat less.

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iron daily recommendations
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How Much Do You Need?

If you’re a man, you should get about 8 milligrams (mg) per day. If you’re a woman 19 to 50 years old, you need more than double that: about 18 mg per day. That jumps to 27 mg if you’re pregnant and drops to 10 mg if you’re breastfeeding. After age 50, women’s needs drop to the same as men: 8 mg per day.

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vegan foods with iron
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What If You’re Vegetarian or Vegan?

Your body doesn’t absorb iron from vegetables as easily as it does from animal protein like fish, chicken, and meat. That’s why vegetarians or vegans should almost double the daily iron amount that doctors recommend for meat eaters. That’s 14 mg for men, and 32 mg for women age 19-50. You can do it if you eat a varied diet and get plenty of vitamin C (in foods including oranges, red peppers, strawberries, and broccoli), which helps your body absorb the iron.

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foods with iron
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Which Foods Provide Iron?

Oysters, beef liver, white beans, lentils, and spinach are some of the top natural food sources. Lean meat, seafood, and poultry are great animal sources and help your body absorb iron from other foods like beans, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables. Iron is also in many “fortified” grain products like bread and breakfast cereal. Check the label to see how much is in a serving.

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iron supplement pills
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Do You Need Iron Supplements?

Women who've been through menopause and men probably don’t. Other people might, but most get enough iron from food. Too much iron can cause stomach cramps, constipation, nausea, diarrhea, and lightheadedness. It also could make it harder for your body to absorb enough zinc. Overdoses of iron supplements, which can provide different amounts of iron, can cause life-threatening problems in children younger than 6. And most adults shouldn’t get more than 45 mg of iron per day, so it’s best to ask your doctor first before taking any iron supplements.

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pregnant woman and baby clothes
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If You’re Pregnant

You need more iron to keep up with the greater amount of blood that nurtures you and your growing baby. Without enough, your baby might be born too soon or with a low body weight. It could even cause problems with parts of your baby’s brain development. Your doctor will likely watch your levels and may prescribe a supplement if you need it or just to be safe.

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infant sleeping
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Your Baby

Around 10% of infants and toddlers don’t get enough iron. If your little one was born early or underweight, she may not have much in the tank. Even a full-term baby only has enough for a few months before it runs out. If not restocked, this early lack of iron could lead to behavior and attention problems later. Talk to your doctor about how to track, and, if needed, supplement your child’s iron.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 02/07/2019 Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on February 07, 2019


1) man_at_mouse / Getty Images

2) newannyart / Getty Images

3) Stockbyte / Thinkstock

4) KATERYNA KON / Science Source

5) tetmc / Thinkstock

6) MillefloreImages / Getty Images

7) Yulia Gusterina / Getty Images

8) Scimat / Science Source

9) NataliaDeriabina / Getty Images

10) Image Source / Getty Images



Cleveland Clinic: “Anemia,” “How to Tell If You Have Iron Deficiency Anemia.”

Kaleidoscope Fighting Lupus.

Office of Dietary Supplements: “Vitamin C,” “Iron.”

Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute: “Iron.”

Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on February 07, 2019

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.