Not all iron pills are created equally — read on to find out how to pick the best one for your nutrition needs.
Ideally, we’d get all of our nutrients from whole food sources—and that includes iron. But there are many people who either just need extra iron for health reasons, or whose diet doesn’t have ample amounts of the vital mineral.
That’s where supplements come in handy, but it’s not as easy as grabbing the first bottle you see off the shelves. Supplements come in all shapes, sizes, and some even come in the gummies that remind you of your childhood vitamins.
But which ones should you take, and should you be taking one at all? We’ll run down everything you need to know about iron supplements in this handy guide.
Why Take an Iron Supplement?
If you’re wondering if you should take a supplement, let’s take a look at the very word itself. Supplement means to enhance or complete something, and in this case that means your diet.
As we said, you’d typically want to get all of your nutrients from your breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, which should have a good mix of vitamins and minerals. However, certain people may find that difficult due to lifestyle or diet choices.
For example, let’s say you’re a busy executive who has little time to decide what to eat. Your meals may not come packed with Vitamin C, iron, and folate. In this case, supplements will help round out your nutrition intake.
Similarly, someone who lives a plant-based lifestyle can find ways to make sure they’re getting a good amount of iron but depending on their height and weight that could be very difficult. They’re also probably lacking enough Vitamin B12, which helps produce our blood cells’ genetic materials, and would have to take a supplement for that.
But let’s say you’re an omnivore who eats a well-rounded diet, gets enough sleep, and maintains an active lifestyle. There’s probably no reason for you to take a supplement—but only a nutritionist or physician will be able to confirm if you’re getting all the nutrients you need.
Iron Supplements and Dosages — More than Meets the Eye
You’re scanning the supplement aisle and you spot a bottle that says each serving contains 50 mg of iron. “Great,” you tell yourself, “that’s just about what I need for the entire day.” Well, believe it or not you’re not getting 50 mg from that supplement. Let us explain.
There’s something called “bioavailability,” which is essentially how effective any drug or supplement is when it enters your body’s system. A number of things can affect bioavailability, from the type of supplement you take (capsule vs oral spray), to your gut health.
In other words, one person who takes a 50 mg iron supplement may get 25-35 mg at the end of the day, and another person taking the same dose could get less or more.
For the sake of this article, we’re going to focus on the bioavailability factors of the supplements themselves. But it’s important to note that supplements aren’t magic, and if you’re not taking care of your overall health you may still experience some anemia symptoms such as fatigue, pallor, irregular heartbeats, and shortness of breath.
Less Can Be More
Several studies have found that lower doses of iron and other supplements can be more effective than higher doses. Another wide-ranging study also found that taking supplements on alternating days increased iron absorption in women with low iron levels.
What Type of Iron Supplement Should I Take?
There are many types of iron supplements, and you should talk with your nutritionist or physician to decide which ones are best for you. For most people though, you’ll want to find a supplement that contains ferrous sulfate, a chemical compound that contains iron. Some supplements are sold as ferrous sulfate.
Ferrous sulfate is also the most easily absorbed form of iron.
You’ll also want to look at the label and make sure it contains a good amount of “elemental iron.” This will be the total amount of iron that your body can, in theory, absorb (again, bioavailability will bring down that number at the end of the day).
How Long Should I Take an Iron Supplement?
Excess iron intake can have just as many health risks as iron deficiency, including digestive issues, vomiting, stomach ulcers, and damage to your organs. Talk with your healthcare provider to come up with a plan for how long and often you should be taking an iron supplement.
Track Your Supplement Intake With AnemoCheck
Did you know that AnemoCheck allows you to track your hemoglobin levels, and record how often you take an iron supplement? This allows you to see how effective different supplements and diet changes might be for your overall blood health.