The role of iron in the human body

Iron is an essential micronutrient and plays many important functions in the body: 1, 2

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Iron contributes to normal oxygen transport in the body. It contributes to normal formation of red blood cells and haemoglobin.

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Iron contributes to normal function of the immune system.

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Iron  contributes to normal energy-yielding metabolism.

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Iron shows positive influence on the nervous system, as well as physical and intellectual functioning of the human.

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Iron contributes to:

  • - normal cognitive functions, also in children,
  • - reduction of tiredness and fatigue.
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Iron has a role in the process of cell division.

1. Liu P.T. et al. “The roles of iron in health and disease.” Mol Aspects Med. 2001 Feb-Apr;22(1-2):1-87.

2. EUROPEAN FOOD SAFETY AUTHORITY. Commission Regulation (EU) No 432/2012 of 16 May 2012.

Types of iron and its absorption

The key to maintain a proper iron level is that you get the right amount of it from a well-balanced diet daily, and if necessary, from rational supplementation, because our body is not able to produce it on its own. However, this valuable microelement can be stored in the hepatocytes (liver cells), muscles and bone marrow.1,2

Iron is a micronutrient of a very low absorption (average iron absorption is approx. 10% of the amount provided with diet). There are two types of iron supplied with food:

  • heme iron – that of animal origin, mainly contained in eggs, meat (beef, veal) and fish,
  • non-heme iron – that of vegetable origin, contained i.a. in seeds of legumes and leafy vegetables. 1, 2

Heme iron is easier to absorb than the non-heme iron. A well balanced diet should provide human with 10-15 mg of both heme and non-heme iron, out of which approximately 10% is absorbed into the blood. The absorption rate of heme iron reach almost 22%, while that of the non-heme only 2–5%.1, 2

1. Artym J. „ Udział laktoferryny w gospodarce żelazem w organizmie. Cześć I. Wpływ laktoferryny na wchłanianie, transport i magazynowanie żelaza.” (The participation of lactoferrin in iron metabolism in the body. Part I. Effect of lactoferrin on the absorption, transport and storage of iron.) Postępy Hig Med Dośw. (online), 2008; 62: 599-611.

2. Lieu P.T. et al. “The roles of iron in health and disease.” Mol Aspects Med. 2001 Feb-Apr, 22(1–2):1–87.

When is it worth to use iron?

Iron is a very important mineral that is essential for the proper functioning of human body.

It is worth using it when we have iron deficiency.

Iron - who may need it?

Infants, young children and adolescents.A decrease in the iron level may occur in infants between 6th and 18th months physiologically, due to depletion of iron stocks delivered in fetal life. Iron deficiency may also affect teenagers, during puberty and increased growth, due to its greater demand. 1

Women in the peri-menstrual period - in case of profuse and prolonged bleeding. 2, 3

Pregnant women - iron is crucial for women planning a pregnancy for proper development of the fetus nervous system and its general wellbeing. During pregnancy iron is used by fetus to a large extent. Both during pregnancy and after childbirth, the woman's body must accumulate iron intensively. 2, 3, 4

Vegetarians, vegans – a heme iron (of origin animal) is absorbed in almost 22%, while a non-heme (of vegetable origin) only in 2–5%. Therefore in a vegetarian or vegan diet the amount of iron delivered to the body may be insufficient. 2,3

Blood donors - during a single blood donation the human body loses 200-250 mg of iron. It takes 56 days if they absorb 4-5 mg of iron per day, to re-build the proper iron level in the donor's body (a recommended minimum interval between donations). First of all, iron should be provided with a balanced diet. As we absorb only about 10% of the consumed amount of iron, replenishment of proper iron level only with diet maybe challenging. In such cases, it is worth to consider additional supplementation. 2, 3, 5

People who train intensively - during intense exercise, red blood cells are mechanically destroyed, which increases the need for iron. 6

1. Szajewska H. „Iron in the nutrition of infants. " New Pediatrics 2/2004, s. 61-65.

2. Jarosz M., Bułhak-Jachymczyk B. „Standards of human nutrition "WL PZWL, Warsaw 2008.

3. Kilip S. et al., "Iron Deficiency Anemia." Am Fam Physician 2007; 75:671-678.

4. Południewski G. „Anemia "The Doctor's World,2013/11/01.

5. Mast A. E. “ Low hemoglobin deferral in blood donors.” Transfus Med Rev. 2014 January; 28(1): 18–22. doi:10.1016/j.tmrv. 2013.11.01.

6. Wnęk D. „Diet in the prevention and treatment of iron deficiency in athletes".,dieta-w-profilaktyce-i-leczeniu-niedoborow-zelaza-u-sportowcow. 2021.04.30.

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