You may know someone with iron deficiency. I’m here to talk to you about different forms of iron supplementation. For one reason or another, a physician may recommend iron.  There are many forms of iron and it is important to understand the difference between the amount of iron salt and amount of elemental iron one should be taking.


According to the Mayo Clinic, a doctor may recommend iron to a patient if they suffer from bleeding problems, burns, hemodialysis, intestinal diseases, stomach problems, had part of their stomach removed, or use medicines to increase their red blood cell count.  And according to the Cleveland Clinic, a doctor may also recommend iron for people experiencing iron-deficiency anemia. These are people like women, those over 65 who are likely to have iron-poor diets, those on blood thinners such as aspirin, Plavix, Coumadin, or heparin, those who have kidney failure or are on dialysis, and those who have trouble absorbing iron.

If you fall into one of these categories and have been recommended iron by a physician, here is something you should know:  Iron comes in a salt form. Most commonly you will find it as ferrous sulfate, ferrous gluconate, or ferrous fumarate. Each form is able to keep a different amount of elemental iron. According to the NIH, “ferrous fumarate is 33% elemental iron by weight, whereas ferrous sulfate is 20% and ferrous gluconate is 12% elemental iron.” On the supplements facts panel, the amount of elemental iron is listed plainly. Taking iron with a bit of acid like that found in orange juice increases absorption of the iron.

Now when a doctor recommends an amount of iron, they are referring to the amount of elemental iron. The National RDA for iron for a male 19-50 years old is 8mg. For a female 19-50 years old, the RDA for iron is 18mg; it’s even higher is you’re pregnant: 27mg. Commonly, a doctor may recommend 65mg of elemental iron which is found in a lot of iron-only supplements, but in amounts greater than 45mg, iron can cause gastrointestinal upset like nausea and constipation. This is why taking a heme iron polypeptide, carbonyl iron, iron amino-acid chelate, or polysaccharide-iron complex might limit gastic upset.

You may have heard about a heme vs. nonheme argument. Heme iron is more bioavailable than non-heme iron. Good sources of heme iron are lean meats and seafood while sources of non-heme iron are nuts, beans, and vegetables, as well as fortified grain products.  Heme iron absorption is less occluded than non-heme iron by other dietary elements but calcium can inhibit the absorption of both forms of iron. If you are interested in taking iron or are curious about your iron levels, talk to a doctor. There are a number of measurements he/she could take on your iron levels.

Oppositely, you may suffer from or know someone who suffers from hemochromatosis. Individuals with hemochromatosis absorb excessive amounts of iron. These individuals have a risk of iron overload and should not consider taking iron supplements.


Disclaimer: The content of this article is not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure disease.


Mayo Clinic. Iron Supplement (Oral Route, Parenteral Route). Drugs and Supplements. Portions of this document last updated: Jan. 01, 2016

Cleveland Clinic. Oral Iron Supplementation. Diseases & Conditions. This document was last reviewed on: 9/9/2014

National Institutes of Health. Iron Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet. Health Information. Reviewed: November 24, 2015

Written by: Sabeen Faquir

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