Let’s get right to the point: every cell in the body depends on iron. We all need this essential mineral. For energy and cellular growth, iron is key. For immune health, iron is key. For making hemoglobin—the protein in red blood cells—iron is key. For supporting hormones, iron is key. For a healthy pregnancy, iron is key. The list goes on and on. Simply put, iron is necessary for life. That’s why it’s important to know what are the best iron supplements for women.
Without enough iron, your body can’t produce enough hemoglobin, resulting in iron deficiency (which is no joke!). In turn, leaving you tired, groggy, short of breath, and craving unusual substances. Initially, iron deficiency anemia can be relatively mild—so much so that it goes unnoticed. But as the body becomes more iron deficient, the signs and symptoms intensify. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to make sure you’re getting enough iron, via food and high-quality iron supplements.
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Heme vs. Non-Heme Iron
Dietary iron comes in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found only in animal protein (i.e. meat, poultry, and seafood). This is the most functional iron in the human body. Non-heme iron is found in plant foods, like beans, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens. Although non-heme iron isn’t as bioavailable as heme iron, it is still a viable source.
Can You Get Iron Naturally From Foods?
Yes! There is a variety of animal-based and plant-based ingredients that contain iron. The best food sources of heme iron include organ meats, fish and seafood, duck, and ground beef. These foods are high in vitamin B12 too. A few of the top non-heme food sources are lentils, blackstrap molasses, quinoa, beans, tomato puree, cooked spinach, and hearts of palm.
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How to Increase Iron Absorption
Whether you’re consuming heme or non-heme iron (or a combination of both), vitamin C is important for all iron absorption. Often, vitamin C is added to iron supplements because it enhances iron absorption. From citrus fruits to bell peppers, these vitamin C-rich ingredients can support your body’s ability to absorb iron.
Furthermore, foods with vitamin A and beta-carotene aid in iron bioavailability. Vitamin A is critical for healthy vision, bone growth, and immune health. Beta-carotene can be turned into vitamin A in your body. Nourishing food sources with both beta-carotene and vitamin A are carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, and apricots. In essence, the foods you eat not only influence how much iron you consume but also how well this essential mineral is absorbed in your body.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of Iron
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of iron is a generalized recommendation to fit most people. However, the daily amount of iron needed ultimately depends on age, sex, health conditions, and diet. As a guideline, adult women (ages 19-50) need 18mg of iron per day. Adult men (ages 19-50) need 8mg of iron per day. Women who have entered menopause only need approximately 8mg of iron per day.
That said, this amount can be higher for women of childbearing years, especially those who are pregnant or have a heavy menstrual cycle. If you’re currently breastfeeding—and you had anemia during pregnancy—chat with your healthcare provider about possibly taking an iron supplement. Furthermore, professional athletes, who lose significant iron through sweat, also may need a higher iron dosage.
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Why Do Women Need Iron More Than Men?
Women need more iron than men because they lose it through menstruation, pregnancy, and lactation. In other words, women need more iron than men to make up for the amount of iron they lose during their childbearing years. Research shows that around 1mg of iron is lost for every day of menstrual bleeding. Iron is the most common nutrient deficiency in women, an incentive to get levels checked to avoid anaemia.
Do I Need an Iron Supplement?
Ultimately, this boils down to a few factors. Pregnant women, vegans, infants and kids, athletes, those with gastrointestinal disorders, frequent blood donors, or women with heavy periods should consider an iron supplement.
Furthermore, if you think you may be deficient in iron (due to fatigue, dizziness, etc.), your doctor can order a complete blood count (CBC) test. With lower than normal red blood cell counts, among other symptoms, an iron supplement might be helpful.
What to Look for in an Iron Supplement
When choosing an iron supplement, there are a few factors to take into account. First and foremost, the most optimal source is iron bisglycinate (also known as ferrous bisglycinate). The less optimal sources are ferrous fumarate and ferrous sulfate. These types of iron can, unfortunately, cause unpleasant side effects, like constipation, nausea, heartburn, and stomach pain.
Secondly, instead of looking at the overall strength (i.e. weight) of iron, look at the amount of elemental iron. Elemental iron is the amount of iron available for absorption. For example, an iron supplement may read 300mg on the front of the bottle, but it may only contain 60mg of elemental iron. Work with your healthcare practitioner to find the right type and dose of iron.
Thirdly, take a look for added nutrients that may promote iron absorption (like vitamin C) or impair it (like calcium). Last but not least, check for brands that use third-party quality testing. More on my favorite brands, below!
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How Do I Know My Iron Supplement Is Working?
Other than getting another blood test, these signs indicate your iron supplement is working: more energy, healthy skin, normal appetite, and improved focus. If it’s not working, you’ll likely still feel fatigued, experience shortness of breath, headaches, and notice dull skin. If your dose is too high, you may notice nausea, constipation, faintness, etc. Consult your doctor, immediately, if you notice further adverse effects.
What Are Common Iron Supplement Side Effects?
While these vary, common iron supplement side effects include stomach upset and pain, irregular bowel movements (constipation or diarrhea), nausea, and vomiting. For some, taking iron supplements with food seems to reduce a few of these side effects. Keep in mind that adverse results can result from an iron dose that is too high.
The 10 Best Iron Supplements for Women
Fortunately, if you’re in need of an iron supplement, there are many supplements available to restore your iron levels. Regardless of varying price points, these iron supplements have received quality certifications and third-party testing.
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In addition to folic acid, B vitamins, and herb extracts, the Floradix iron tablets are easily absorbable. They also contain organic iron and are plant-based.
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MaryRuth’s vegan liquid iron is my go-to. Their liquid iron comes from bioavailable ferrous bisglycinate chelate, which may have higher absorption rates and increased tolerability than traditional iron salts.
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In comparison to other supplements on the list, MegaFood’s iron supplement provides 26mg of iron in the form of iron-enriched yeast. In addition, it also includes 60mg of iron for improved absorption.
For those who prefer gummies, the BeLive iron gummies are delicious. Along with vitamin C, folic acid, vitamin A, and B vitamins, the gummies have 10mg of iron per serving. These are designed for adults and kids.
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With 9mg of whole food fermented ferrous fumarate iron, New Chapter’s iron supplement contains powerful probiotics to aid in gut health. It is a good source of dual-fermed iron, ideal for periods of blood loss (including menstruation).
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Along with 23 powdered fruits and vegetables, Garden of Life’s iron supplement contain 22mg of raw whole food iron, vitamin C, B12, and folate. This supplement is unique in that they’re RAW. Meaning, they are produced below 115º F and come with their natural cofactors, like live probiotics and enzymes.
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NOW uses Ferrochel® Iron Bisglycinate, which has clinically-demonstrated superior absorption and is better tolerated. Each capsule contains 18mg of iron.
Made without any synthetic dyes or artificial flavors, Nature Made’s iron supplement is affordable and contains 65mg of iron. They also source from high-quality ingredients.
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Thorne’s Iron Bisglycinate provides 25mg of elemental iron per capsule. Although it doesn’t include vitamin C, it has been reacted with glycine for optimal absorption in the gastrointestinal tract, thus helping to decrease the typical gastrointestinal side effects.
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Zahler’s iron complex is a non-constipating iron supplement with vitamin C, containing an optimal blend of ingredients. It also contains vitamin B12 and folate, ideal for pregnant women.