The Risks and Side-Effects of Taking Iron Supplements: Helpful Tips and Alternatives
Iron is easily one of the most important minerals in all of human history. Obviously, iron has been essential to human industrial and technological development. Less obvious is the relevance of iron in terms of human health.
While the importance of iron as a nutrient is easily overlooked by most men, this is far from the case for women. Indeed, there is a distinct need for iron supplementation in women of all stages of life, particularly those who avoid red meat in their diets. However, the risks and side-effects of taking iron supplements are much greater than other common supplement ingredients.
Let’s take a look at those, as well as some possible workarounds and alternatives.
Perhaps the most common and least threatening of all iron side-effects is the good ol’ stomach cramp. These are primarily caused by taking oral iron supplements on an empty stomach. The kicker is that iron is generally better absorbed on an empty stomach. If you experience cramps or other minor digestive side effects from oral iron supplements, then experiment with taking them on a slightly fuller stomach until you find the right balance.
If cramps persist even on a full stomach, then you should stop taking iron supplements and contact your healthcare provider.
Certain forms of iron, such as polysaccharide-iron complex, may provide some benefits in this area. Additionally, enteric coated and controlled release iron supplements may also be gentler on the stomach.1
The final and most fool-proof method is to experiment with iron supplements which utilize non-digestive means of nutrient absorption. The PatchMD Iron Plus Topical Patch provides a useful transdermal option.
Nausea and Vomiting
Similar to the cramps, nausea and even vomiting are relatively common side-effects of taking oral iron supplements on an empty stomach. However, nausea and vomiting tend to occur when taking above-average doses of iron. To avoid these side effects, and other digestive complications, it is always ideal to take your iron supplements with some food in your stomach.
Another helpful tip is to be cautious as to which foods and beverages you consume before supplementation. Foods which are high in fiber and caffeine are the main offenders.
Finally, milk, calcium and antacids should only be taken at least two hours after iron supplementation.2
This issue is only a concern for those who prefer to take liquid iron supplements. The best methods for avoiding this are to dilute the supplement with juice or water, to use a dropper and place the supplement on the back of your tongue, or to use a straw.
For those who have learned about this side effect via your bathroom mirror, there is still hope! Iron stains can be removed by brushing your teeth with baking soda or medicinal peroxide.3
There isn’t much to say about this risk, but it’s worth adding to the list regardless. High doses of iron (approx. 60 mg) are potentially fatal for children. It’s also worth noting that iron is the most common cause of poisoning deaths for children,1 so even just having iron supplements in the same household as a child can be a major risk. Make sure you keep your iron supplements hidden and out of reach from children.
Gastritis & Ulcers
This risk ties back to other digestive side effects of iron supplementation, particularly stomach cramps. The bottom line is that iron supplements are very hard on the mucosa of the upper gastrointestinal tract. As such, continual aches and pains of any sort which emanate from the abdominal region should be taken very seriously by those who regularly engage in iron supplementation.
Thankfully, some studies have found that liquid iron supplements may reduce the risk of developing gastritis and gastric ulcers.4 Just be careful not to stain your teeth!
Before diving into this significant risk factor of iron supplementation, it’s important to note that iron deficiency is also a potential source of carcinogenic effects. This presents a very troubling situation for those with long-term iron deficiencies (anemia).
For these people it’s necessary to supplement for iron, but the risk of an iron overload is a very serious one. The best way to achieve this balance is to work closely with a healthcare practitioner who will most likely keep regular tabs on serum iron concentrations. Another helpful suggestion is to avoid the use of animal-derived iron, also known as heme.5
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Please note: All information presented to you in this website is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. We cannot, and will not give you medical advice. We strongly recommend you consult your physician for any and all specific health issues. If you have any questions or contributions, please contact us via email or phone-call. We are constantly looking for new information to promote wellness – and hearing from you would make our day.