Iron Its Mission

Although iron has many biological functions, its main job is to carry oxygen in the hemoglobin of red blood cells. In fact, about two-thirds of your body's iron is in hemoglobin. Hemoglobin takes oxygen to your body cells, where it's used to produce energy. Iron in red blood cells also helps take away carbon dioxide, a by-product of energy production. Red blood cells have a "life span" of about four months. After that, some of their iron gets recycled; either it's stored or used immediately to make new red blood cells. This recycling action helps protect you from iron deficiency.

What happens when you don't consume enough iron—or when the iron stored in your body gets too low? Red blood cells can't carry as much oxygen, likely making you feel tired, perhaps weak, and less able to perform at your peak efficiency. These are among the symptoms of anemia. However, anemia has several causes—not just iron deficiency. See "Anemia: More Than One Cause " in chapter 22.

As part of its job description, iron also helps protect you from infections as part of an enzyme in your immune system. Iron helps change beta carotene to vitamin A, helps produce collagen (which holds tissues of your body together), and helps make body proteins (amino acids), among its other tasks.

How much iron do you need to consume? Your body is highly adaptive, absorbing more iron when its iron stores are low, and less when they're higher. Regardless, the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) are set to meet the needs of the broad population.

Iron needs are highest during periods of rapid growth: childhood, adolescence, childbearing years for women, and pregnancy. Prior to menopause, women need enough iron to replace losses from menstrual flow. Iron needs also go up to support increases of blood volume during pregnancy. Not surprisingly, iron-deficiency anemia is most common among

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