Iron and Men’s Health
Iron is an essential mineral that supports everything from growth and development, cognitive health, cardiovascular health, energy and metabolism. It’s often referred to as the “Goldilocks mineral” because you don’t want too much and you don’t want too little – “just right” is what’s needed. Iron deficiency in men is not usually as common an issue as with women but a lot of times it flies under the radar as some men may not be as aware that they need supplemental iron. Certain age, diet and lifestyle factors are associated with increased risk of iron deficiency for men.
You Are What You Absorb
Our bodies regulate the absorption and storage of iron in ways unlike most other minerals. If you have enough iron in the blood already, absorption is reduced and iron binds to a protein called ferritin and is then stored as reserve iron (in the liver, spleen and bone marrow); in cases of low iron, it binds to transferrin, a protein used to safely transport it into the body and blood for use in red blood cells. Blood levels are maintained by drawing on ferritin stores if the diet is not providing enough. Adult men need 8 mg of elemental iron per day but this can change if they are not absorbing it well, aren’t getting enough from their diet or are losing iron and red blood cells and creating a deficit.
Men Need Iron Too – Seniors, Athletes, Vegans
Pregnancy and menstruation place increased iron demands on women so for much of their lives, their recommended daily intake is higher than men’s. There are cases where men still may be low in iron or even anemic and need supplemental iron. Athletes, seniors and those following vegan diets are more likely to be low in iron. For example, 8-44% of seniors are anemic, with men being the most likely to be deficient. This may be due to diet as well as digestion and absorption issues that worsen over time.
For athletes, research shows that micro bleeds and destruction of red blood cells from vigorous exercise, along with foot-strike hemolysis in long distance runners and exercise-induced increases in a hormone called hepcidin that down-regulates iron absorption all contribute to low iron status. Depending on the group being studied, anywhere from 3-40% of male athletes are iron deficient. This study from Europe for example found that up to 11% of male athletes were low in iron. A study of elite runners found that male triathletes were actually more likely (25% vs. 20%) than their female counterparts to be iron deficient. This may be due to women being more aware of the importance and need for iron and the assumption that men don’t require it.
For men following a vegan or vegetarian diet, it’s true that iron deficiency and anemia are less prevalent than for women but it’s still a significant number of people. A 2018 review of 13 studies found that up to 29% of men had low ferritin levels and up to 15% had low hemoglobin levels.
Some iron supplements contain larger amounts than others and can sometimes cause side effects. More than 45mg of elemental iron at once can lead to upset stomach or constipation. The constipation is due to the excess iron that is not being absorbed. In many cases, it may be more advantageous to take smaller doses of iron several times throughout the day. Liquid forms are especially easy to absorb and divide up this way. For example, a study in seniors found that low doses of liquid ferrous gluconate were able to correct anemia without side effects and could be used instead of standard higher dose tablets.
Flora’s Iron+Herb is a liquid iron and B vitamin formula that uses ferrous gluconate in a base of fruit and vegetable juices for optimal absorption and correction of iron deficiency. Just 10 mL twice daily provides 20 mg of elemental iron – enough for most adults. For the men out there wondering if you’re iron deficient or if you need supplemental iron, if you fall into one of these groups more prone to iron deficiency (vegans, seniors, athletes) and especially if you have persistent fatigue, start with a bottle of Iron+, see if it helps with the fatigue and energy levels and visit your doctor to get your iron levels checked.
Robert Dadd is a Master Herbalist (Dominion Herbal College) with a BA in Communications from Simon Fraser University. His areas of research include adaptogens, probiotics, and essential fatty acids. He is currently the Product Information Supervisor for Flora Manufacturing and Distributing.