What is iron?
Iron is an important, naturally occurring substance in the body. It doesn’t circulate as the free metal we know but is always bound to a protein called transferrin.
Measuring iron in your serum is of limited value on its own, but forms part of a useful picture when assessed alongside the other markers we determine in this section.
What is its function?
Iron is a vital mineral needed by the body for carrying oxygen to our tissues. It’s largely found within the blood (in haemoglobin) and the muscles (in myoglobin).
About two-thirds of the body’s iron is present in red blood cells, with a further 15% in muscle and cells. The remaining, surplus iron is stored primarily as ferritin in the liver.
What can cause it to change?
Because iron is found mostly in the blood, levels can drop if blood loss occurs for any reason, such as menstruation in women or internal bleeding. But a poor diet, certain gut diseases and some types of surgery can also give rise to iron deficiency.
Low iron levels can lead to iron deficiency anaemia which can cause tiredness, shortness of breath, head pain, and heart palpitations. In men, low levels are linked to feeling depressed.
How to increase your iron levels
Try to make sure you’re getting enough iron from your diet. Good sources include:
- pulses — like lentils, beans, and peas
- pumpkin and squash seeds
- dark green leafy vegetables — like kale, spinach, and watercress
- dried fruit — like raisins
- red meat
- seafood — for example mussels, clams or oysters
- iron-fortified cereals
Combining plant-based sources of iron with vitamin C can help increase how much you absorb. Most fruits and vegetables are good sources of vitamin C. Also, try to avoid too much tea, coffee, and milk as this can stop you from absorbing iron.
If you're not able to get enough from your diet, an iron supplement might help. It's a good idea to get advice from a health professional before taking a supplement.