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.
What factors within my control could influence it?
Diet is an important source of iron, so it’s worth checking that your diet contains iron-rich foods, such as:
- Foods rich in vitamin C, such as fruit and vegetables.
- Red and yellow coloured fruit and vegetables (the beta carotene that gives them this colour is good for iron absorption)
- Meat – especially red meat and liver
Be careful of having too much milk and dairy food, since calcium, although essential in moderation, can hamper iron absorption if consumed in large quantities. It’s also a good idea to moderate consumption of eggs and coffee
Your iron level can also rise above normal if you are exceeding the recommended iron supplement, if your blood cells are breaking down too quickly (a condition that can also lead to a type of anaemia), and in certain diseases, particularly of the liver.