Many doctors are quick to prescribe iron supplements when they suspect a patient is iron deficient. But is taking an iron supplement a good idea? British researchers recently issued a warning about possible side effects.
Researchers at the Imperial College in London have found that concentrations of iron similar to those delivered by a standard iron tablet can trigger DNA damage within ten minutes when given to cells in the laboratory. The tests were carried out on human endothelial cells, a kind of cell that lines the interior surface of blood and lymphatic vessels. It’s still uncertain how these findings translate to cells in the body.
Iron is essential for body functions, and has an important role in the immune system and in oxygen transport. In most cases, iron supplements are unnecessary. Good sources of iron include fish and meat, as well as legumes, oats, and wheat germ. Some people are at a higher risk of iron deficiency anemia, including people who have experienced blood loss as well as women of childbearing age, who may experience a loss of iron in the blood due to heavy menstruation. In cases of a documented deficiency, an iron supplement may be necessary. Pregnant women also have an increased iron requirement. Pregnant women require 27 milligrams of iron per day, compared to between 15 to 18 milligrams for women who are not pregnant. Adult men have a lower iron requirement than women, and are even less likely to require iron supplements.
Chronic iron deficiency can lead to symptoms such as hair loss, brittle nails, headache, dizziness or fatigue. In such cases, doctors typically prescribe an iron supplement. But the recent findings of the British researchers suggest that it’s worth paying attention to supplement dosage levels.
Along with potential damage to DNA, excess iron can also lead to cardiac disease. Cardiac dysfunction due to hereditary iron overload is more likely to affect men, since women are more likely to shed any excess iron during menstruation. For both men and women who have reached menopause, doctors should undertake a careful diagnosis and before prescribing iron supplements.