If you feel run-down, lack of iron is probably not the cause. You can easily get enough of this key mineral in your diet.
Decades ago, advertising for the liquid vitamin and mineral supplement Geritol warned against “iron-poor, tired blood.” It’s a reference to the fact that red blood cells need iron to make hemoglobin, the molecule that grabs oxygen and transports it around the body.
If you feel fatigued, the reason is unlikely to be a lack of iron. On the other hand, if your iron stores are low, you would definitely want to know about it.
“If you make a diagnosis of iron deficiency in men, you really need to do a thorough exam because it could be the sign of something more serious,” says Dr. Reed E. Drews, associate professor of medicine at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel-Deaconess Medical Center.
The main thing your doctor will want to rule out is hidden bleeding. And as for getting the relatively small amount of iron you need for health, a nutritious diet should do the trick without any need for iron supplements.
Iron and anemia
Anemia means you don’t have enough red blood cells or hemoglobin to be healthy. It can happen because the body lacks sufficient supply of iron, a condition called iron-deficiency anemia. Iron-deficiency anemia affects perhaps 1% to 2% of all American adults.
Blood tests can check for anemia. A separate test, which measures a blood protein called ferritin, checks your body’s iron stores. Ferritin latches onto iron and sequesters it in the liver, spleen, and bone marrow. When the body needs to draw on its iron account, it comes out of the ferritin bank.
Low iron stores can lead to anemia as well as other health problems, since iron has a wider role. “Every cell in the body needs iron,” Dr. Drews says. “Even though the hemoglobin may be at a level sufficient to deliver oxygen to the tissues, you need iron for other things—for example, in your muscles and brain cells.”
If you are depleted, taking an iron supplement can replenish your iron stores and hopefully reverse anemia or other problems. Iron supplements can trigger gastrointestinal discomfort and constipation, so you may need to take them in gradually increasing doses.
Meats contain the most easily absorbed form of iron, called heme iron.
Good sources of iron
Adult men need to take in an average of 8 milligrams of iron every day from food. Here is where to get it:
Iron and aging
Although iron-deficiency anemia is uncommon in the general population, it becomes more prevalent with aging. In a large national health survey, about 10% of American men and women 65 and older had anemia. Possible causes include hidden bleeding from ulcers or an inflamed stomach lining (gastritis), inflammatory bowel disease, and colon cancer. “Unless you are a frequent blood donor, iron deficiency in men is usually associated with some sort of medical problem,” Dr. Drews says.
If internal bleeding is the root cause, it’s important to find out and stop it. The process might include upper endoscopy to check the throat for bleeding or a colonoscopy to rule out colon cancer or other possible causes of blood loss. Dark or tarry stools are a red-flag sign of gastrointestinal bleeding. Sometimes the “leak” is never pinpointed, and it may just stop on its own.
Iron in your diet
The USDA recommends that adult men get 8 milligrams of iron per day in their diets. In the U.S. population, the least common cause of iron deficiency is inadequate dietary intake. That’s thanks to the many foods fortified with iron and the general availability of nutritious food.
Red meat, fish, and poultry contain the most easily absorbed form of dietary iron, called heme iron. Egg yolks also contain some heme iron. People who eat little or no meat must take in more iron from whole grains, leafy greens, and other iron-rich plant foods.
Although Popeye reached for a can of spinach when he needed a quick power boost, the body does not actually absorb iron from plants as readily as from meat. You therefore need to compensate with quantity. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron from food, though taking a vitamin C supplement is not necessary.
If you don’t think you are getting enough iron, or feel fatigued and assume it’s your “tired blood,” you may be tempted to pop an iron supplement as insurance. But beware, because excess iron can build up to toxic levels. So don’t just prescribe yourself an iron supplement on a whim; take it only if your doctor says you need to.