5 Ways Iron Can Affect Your Body

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Iron is an essential part of the proteins that transport oxygen in the body. Hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells, accounts for about two-thirds of the body’s iron supply. Find out what happens if you have too much or too little in your blood.

Iron deficiency may increase stroke risk

New research from the U.K. finds that iron deficiency could increase a person's risk of stroke by making the blood sticky, which could lead to the blood clotting, prompting a stroke. The researchers plans to further study whether treating iron deficiency in high-risk patients could reduce their risk of stroke, and specifically, whether this would cause platelets in the blood to become less sticky.

What causes low iron levels?

Lack of iron in the blood can be caused by blood loss, poor diet, or the inability to absorb a sufficient amount of iron from food, which is a common occurrence in people who suffer from Crohn's disease or celiac disease. Population studies have suggested that people who engage regularly in strenuous exercise, especially adolescents and vegetarians, also are at increased risk of developing iron-deficiency anemia.

What if you have too much iron?

The healthy range of serum ferritin lies between 20 and 80 ng/ml. If you're above 80, you may have too much iron in your blood, which could put you at risk for liver cancer, bowel disorders, diabetes, cardiac arrhythmias, and cirrhosis. Because your body has only a few ways to get rid of iron, it can easily build up in organs, including your liver, heart and pancreas, and cause problems.

Who's at risk?

People at risk of iron overload include post-menopausal women (because they're no longer experiencing monthly blood loss), people with the genetic condition hemochromatosis, and heavy drinkers (alcohol increases iron absorption). You may also be getting too much iron from processed foods that are fortified with iron, cooking in iron pots and pans, or taking iron supplements.

What can you do?

If you suffer from low iron levels, the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) says the best sources of iron are found in meat, poultry, fish and iron-fortified foods. Your doctor may also recommend iron supplements. If you have elevated iron levels, recommended treatments include phlebotomy and frequent blood donation.