This mineral is crucial for blood health—and you may not be getting enough of it.
by Lisa James
Lingering fatigue accounts for numerous practitioner visits each year. And while fatigue can result from a variety of disorders, anemia—in which red blood cells don’t function properly—is one of the most frequently diagnosed conditions among people who are constantly tired.
The most common form of anemia is caused by a lack of iron, which the body uses to create a substance called hemoglobin in red blood cells. Supplements readily correct iron-
deficiency anemia; the key is to take iron with the nutritional cofactors that make it more effective.
Like gas combining with air in a car engine, cells require fuel (generally blood sugar, or glucose) and oxygen to create energy. Hemoglobin, which gives red blood cells their color, grabs oxygen molecules in the lungs so they can be delivered to cells throughout the body. Hemoglobin production accounts for about two-thirds of the body’s total iron supply, so it’s easy to see how a lack of iron can lead to fatigue.
Mild iron deficiency may not be readily noticeable. However, continued shortfalls of this mineral can result in symptoms such as weakness, shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, headache and dizziness. If left untreated, iron-deficiency anemia may even lead to such serious conditions as cardiac trouble or premature labor.
Women of childbearing age, who lose blood through menstruation, are susceptible to anemia.
So are pregnant women; the fetus and placenta draw heavily on the mother’s iron supplies. Because many of the best dietary iron sources are animal-based, vegetarians who don’t eat such iron-rich foods as dried beans and dark greens may become anemic. Frequent blood donors are also at risk, as are people who regularly engage in intense exercise.
A visit to your practitioner is always in order if you suspect you may be anemic. Besides testing for other diseases that can produce undue fatigue, he or she will want to check for internal blood loss through stomach ulcers or other hidden sources of bleeding.
In the case of simple iron-deficiency anemia, standard treatment consists of dietary changes and iron supplementation. Not all types of iron supplements are equal, however. Iron that is bound, or chelated, to amino acids tends to be more readily absorbed and easier on the gastrointestinal tract than other kinds.
Like all micronutrients, iron has vitamin and mineral cofactors that help the mineral do its job. Vitamin C, which aids in iron absorption, is one of iron’s best-known cofactors. (Piperine, a compound found in black pepper, also promotes iron absorption, especially in a patented form called BioPerine.) Zinc and copper are required for optimal iron usage within the body and for the proper formation of red blood cells.
What’s more, a carefully formulated iron supplement will address other related issues. For example, plant compounds such as bioflavonoids and proanthocyanidins provide the antioxidants that help mop up free radicals produced any time oxygen is utilized by the body.
In addition, having the healthiest of red blood cells doesn’t help when blood flow is poor. Beet extract and the amino acid L-cysteine help blood vessels widen to increase circulation during times of peak demand, such as during exercise.
Feeling tired all the time? Low iron may be the cause, and smart supplementation can help.