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IRON SUPPLEMENTS PUMP UP LOW ENERGY LEVELS

You're pooped. You can't concentrate. Bone tired doesn't begin to describe how you feel. Sound all-too exhaustingly true? You could have iron deficiency anemia, the most common known nutritional deficiency in the United States. Supplemental iron could put pep back in your step.

Iron is a key part of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout your body. About 15 percent of American women are at risk of iron deficiency anemia because they don't get enough of this essential nutrient, says Dr. Sean Lynch of Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk.

Premenopausal women who lose iron during menstruation are the most likely candidates, particularly if they don't eat meat. Iron from plant foods is absorbed only half as well. Iron deficiency is especially bad news in pregnant women, because it can boost the risk of delivering premature and low birth-weight babies. It can cause learning disabilities in babies and toddlers, in whom the deficiency is also relatively common.

If you're run-down, don't rush out for some iron supplements just yet. Lots of things -- including stress, diabetes and heart disease -- can cause fatigue. Moreover, too much iron can be dangerous.

Instead, see your doctor or your pediatrician if you suspect that your child has anemia. Your doctor should test for both anemia and low iron stores, also known as ferritin levels, says John Beard, professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University in State College. If you have low ferritin levels, it won't take much -- an illness, pregnancy, surgery -- to deplete your reserves and leave you anemic.

If your doctor diagnoses anemia or low ferritin levels, he'll probably prescribe iron supplements. How much and for how long depends on how severe the problem is, Lynch says.

The iron in supplements is best absorbed on an empty stomach. Try taking them a few hours after you've eaten, particularly if you've had coffee, tea, or foods high in bran, soy protein or calcium, which further lessen iron absorption.

Unfortunately, taking iron supplements can cause nausea, and one proven way to alleviate the queasiness is to take them with food. If you must, take them with a food or drink rich in vitamin C. While food decreases absorption, C boosts the absorption of supplemental iron. If this doesn't help, ask your doctor about chelated iron or time-release iron supplements, Lynch advises.

To prevent a recurrence of iron deficiency anemia, eat lean beef, legumes, fortified cereals and other iron-rich foods. Premenopausal women should also take a multivitamin containing 100 percent of the daily value for iron. Deficiency is uncommon in men over 18 and postmenopausal women, so there's little reason to take a multivitamin with iron if you fall into one of these groups -- unless your doctor advises you to do so.

In people with a genetic condition known as hemochromatosis, iron builds up in the body, damaging vital organs. Hemochromatosis can cause varied symptoms, including arthritis, impotence and fatigue, but the symptoms may not appear for years. If you have these symptoms, or if hemochromatosis runs in your family, get a transferrin saturation test, which can diagnose the disorder. Lynch recommends the test every five years for all adults. The treatment is a modern-day version of bloodletting: reducing blood volume by donating iron-rich blood on a weekly basis.

Quick tip: Wait 90 minutes after taking an iron supplement before drinking tea -- its tannins can prevent iron absorption.

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