Do Iron Supplements Cause Constipation?

One of the most important minerals your body needs is iron. In order for the different systems in your body to function properly, you need a healthy intake of the nutrient. Your body cannot produce vital enzymes, proteins, and red blood cells without iron. Most of the time, if you eat a balanced diet, you will get the iron you need. But if your levels of the nutrient are low, your doctor will recommend supplements. Some people worry that it might cause side effects like constipation, is it really so?

Do Iron Supplements Cause Constipation?

Yes, taking an iron supplement will, sometimes, result in constipation. While it is not a serious side effect, it can cause stress and discomfort. To better comprehend why this might happen, you need to understand how the bacteria in your gut and intestines affect your digestive system.

If your digestive flora is in balance, most of the bacteria is friendly and it keeps the harmful bacteria under control. Since harmful bacteria thrives on iron, which helps it grow and multiply, it can grow excessively when there is a lot of the nutrient available. Iron supplements provide the excess amounts it needs. You are basically feeding the harmful bacteria. As they multiply, they take control.

When this happens, your digestive flora gets thrown off balance. It can result in a weakened immunity system, problems absorbing nutrients and gastrointestinal distress. This can also result in constipation. But don't let this prevent you from taking an iron supplement if you need it. There are ways to combat these effects.

How to Avoid It

Do iron supplements cause constipation? Yes they do. But that doesn't mean you should not take the supplements. Iron is essential for the normal function of your body and there are ways to help you avoid constipation while taking them.

  • Make it gradual: If you have been advised to add an iron supplement to your diet, slowly introduce it. Instead of taking a full dose immediately, start with half of your daily dosage. Over the course of three days, slowly increase it until you are taking the full daily dose by day four. This will help reduce your chances of getting constipated. 
  • Divide the dose: Think about how and when iron supplements cause constipation. It is when there is an excess of iron in your system. A way to prevent this from happening is to divide your daily dose into three smaller parts. Take them throughout the day, instead of all at once.
  • Take your iron supplements with a full glass of orange juice. It gives you the benefits of vitamin C, helps you absorb the nutrient, and provides fluid to your intestines for softer bowel movements.
  • Eat plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit every day. Fresh produce is fiber-rich and helps bulk up your stools. This makes for smoother bowel movements and less chance of constipation. Recommended daily servings include 3-5 vegetable servings and 2-4 fruit servings per day.
  • Physical activity promotes healthy and regular bowel movements. As little as 30 minutes per day can make a difference. Aerobic exercise is best, which can be as easy as a brisk walk or a bike ride around the neighborhood.
  • Remember to use the bathroom when you need to when thinking about "How do iron supplements cause constipation?" Don't hold it. Find a way to excuse yourself if you are with others. If you hold your bowel movement too often, your body will ignore the internal signal you need to go and you can get constipated.
  • Consider taking a stool softener if you cannot find relief for your constipation through exercise or diet, or just need a little more help. Sometimes you only need to take one dose to get things back in working order, but often you will have to take it daily when you are having continuous problems. Stool softeners boost stool water content so it is easier to pass.

How Much Iron Do You Need?

Do iron supplements cause constipation? Before being concerned about that issue, you might want to figure out if you even need to take a supplement. Of course, your doctor can run tests that determine need, but this is a general guideline. Your daily requirement of iron relies strongly on your gender, age and general health.

Young children, such as toddlers and infants, need more iron than any other age group because they grow so fast. Both girls and boys need the same amounts until the age 13. From the age of 4-8, they need 10 milligrams per day and from 9-13 they need 8 milligrams per day.

Once a girl hits adolescence, she will need more iron. This is mostly due to the blood loss associated with her monthly menstrual cycle. A female between 19-50 years old should get 18 milligrams of iron per day, while males of this age only need 8 milligrams.

When a woman starts menopause, her iron needs drop and she will only need 8 milligrams. From this point on, females need the same daily amount as men.

There are also other specific times you may need more iron, which you can get from a supplement or natural dietary sources. These instances include:

  • Ulcer especially with blood loss
  • Breastfeeding as well as during pregnancy
  • Dialysis or kidney failure due to difficulty absorbing iron
  • Intense exercise as too much can kill red blood cells
  • Crohn's disease, celiac disease, or ulcerative colitis prevents iron absorption
  • Weight loss due to bariatric or similar surgery
  • Antacid, extended use prevents iron absorption
  • Vegan or vegetarian, iron absorption from plants is less than from meat

Dietary Sources of Iron

Best dietary iron food sources include:

  • Dried fruit
  • Dried beans
  • Egg yolks
  • Liver
  • Oysters
  • Lean beef meat
  • Dark poultry meat
  • Iron-fortified cereals
  • Whole grains
  • Tuna
  • Salmon
  • Shellfish, lamb and pork

Moderate dietary iron food sources include several vegetables, grains, fruits and supplements, but your body will have a harder time absorbing the nutrient. These include:

  • Spinach
  • Collards
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Asparagus
  • Raisins
  • Apricots
  • Prunes
  • Kidney beans
  • Soybeans
  • Lima beans
  • Almonds
  • Brazil nuts
  • Oats
  • Wheat
  • Brown rice

Eating these moderate iron food sources with a small amount of lean meat can increase the nutrient absorption rate by two or three times. Eating them with citrus foods, potatoes, strawberries and tomatoes also boost iron intake.

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