- Iron deficiency is a widespread problem that can lead to serious health consequences if not treated. The World Health Organization has stated that iron deficiency is the most significant nutritional disorder in the world. Nearly one-third of the world's population may have iron deficiency anemia, and as many as 8 in 10 may be suffering from an iron deficiency. At this time, iron supplements are the only effective treatment for iron deficiency when dietary sources of iron are not enough or when medical conditions increase iron waste or decrease absorption.
- Iron is essential to normal human physiology, and is an integral part of the functioning of numerous important enzymes and proteins in the human body. Iron is necessary for the transport of oxygen to the cells, and is needed for the regulation of cell differentiation and growth. Nearly two-thirds of iron in the human body is located in the hemoglobin, with smaller amounts held in the myoglobin and in enzymes responsible for certain biochemical reactions. Unneeded iron is stored in proteins for later use.
When dietary sources of iron are insufficient, or medical conditions impair the body's absorption of iron, stores of iron in the body dwindle and symptoms of iron deficiency may occur. If these stores are not replenished, normal functioning of the body cannot take place. Iron supplements work by replenishing the body's stores of iron, thereby reducing the symptoms of iron deficiency and improving overall health and functioning.
- Iron supplements are available in two forms: ferrous iron salts and ferric iron. Ferrous iron is also marketed as ferrous sulfate, ferrous gluconate, and ferrous fumarate, and is more easily absorbed by the human body than ferric iron. All iron supplements contain some amount of elemental iron, which is the amount of iron in the supplement available for absorption. Iron is best absorbed when taken from dietary sources, such as red meats, poultry and fish, but iron supplements are an effective alternative when dietary sources are insufficient or absorption is impaired.
- The number one benefit of iron supplements is their treatment of iron deficiency anemia, a condition that most often affects children, women of childbearing age and pregnant women. People experiencing kidney failure may also develop an iron deficiency, as their kidneys are not able to create a hormone essential for the production of red blood cells. Iron deficiency may cause symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, difficulty maintaining normal body temperature, an inflamed tongue, and decreased cognitive performance. Iron supplements can decrease these symptoms, and are used to treat or prevent the decreased immune function associated with iron deficiency and the potential for impaired cognitive development that is common in iron deficient children.
- Excess iron absorption can result in a variety of serious health consequences, many of which are at least as severe as conditions caused by iron deficiency. One risk of too much iron, iron overload, is a condition typically caused by genetic diseases, such as hemochromatosis. Iron overload causes iron to be stored in the heart, liver, and other organs, and can lead to heart failure and liver cirrhosis. Iron overload can also be caused by repeated blood transfusions. Because only small amounts of iron are excreted from the body, iron can accumulate in the organs and tissues and iron toxicity can develop rapidly. Iron toxicity, which can be fatal, is especially prevalent in children who have swallowed iron supplements belonging to an adult. Iron toxicity is a medical emergency.