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Iron Supplements

Many people remember the old "tired blood" ads for iron pills and still believe that iron supplements can treat fatigue. However, no one should take iron pills unless blood tests show a deficiency. Several studies have shown that high blood levels of iron are associated with an increased risk of suffering heart attacks and cancers, particularly, those of the esophagus and bladder. A study from Harvard showed that it may be the meat source of iron, rather than just the iron itself, that causes the heart attacks and cancers. People who eat a lot of meat, fish and chicken have higher blood levels of iron than vegetarians. The iron in meat, fish and chicken is called heme iron, which is absorbed at a very high level, around 10-20 percent. On the other hand, the iron that you get from plants is absorbed very poorly; only one to three percent of the iron from leafy green vegetables and other plant sources of iron is absorbed.

Other studies show that iron deficiency can be healthful. Before the bad LDL cholesterol can form plaques in arteries, it must be converted to oxidized LDL and iron causes this reaction. Lack of iron reduces your chances of forming plaques in your arteries and suffering heart attacks and strokes.

Less than 50 percent of the iron in your body is in your red blood cells. Most iron is in your iron reserves in your liver, spleen and other tissues. Your body needs iron to make red blood cells and if your body does not contain enough iron, you will become anemic, but you will not become anemic until you have depleted all your iron reserves. You can be iron deficient but not anemic when you have an adequate supply of red blood cells, but no iron reserves. Iron deficiency does not make you tired unless you are also anemic, but it can tire athletes exercising at their maximum.

You can find out if your iron level is too high by asking you doctor to draw blood for a test called transferrin iron binding saturation. People with a transferrin iron binding saturation of more than 60 percent are at increased risk for developing heart attacks and cancers. If your level is greater than 60 percent, you can reduce your intake of iron by restricting meat, fish, chicken and iron-supplemented foods, and you can get rid of extra iron by donating blood six or more times a year.

If your blood iron levels are low and you are not anemic, you need a special test called ferritin to measure iron reserves. If your ferritin is low, your doctor will look for a source of bleeding such as heavy menstruation or bleeding in your intestinal tract. If no serious source is found, you need no treatment unless you are a highly competitive athlete. More on chronic fatigue

Checked 4/9/16

May 10th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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