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Iron Supplements - Daily or Weekly?

Updated: Feb 11

IRON SUPPLEMENTS: if you need them, does research suggest you need them every day as is typically prescribed? Quick answer: research finds that a weekly supplement produces similar benefit to a daily supplement, with far less side effects.

There's not a lot of controversy surrounding iron supplements. Maybe in an ideal world everyone can and does eat and absorb enough iron for their health, but in reality there are a lot of situations where this isn't possible.

Aneamia is surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly) common in women of reproductive age. Internationally, one in three non-pregnant women are aneamic, and in many cases the cause is iron deficiency.

In 2018 a Cochrane review was conducted on intermittent iron supplementation – this means a very reliable establishment collected data from all the studies they could find on iron supplementation given to adult (menstruating) women. Most of the included studies (10 996 women in total) were conducted in Latin American, African and Asian countries where anaemia is a big problem and many women are anaemic when they get pregnant. This situation can lead to low birth-weight babies and complications in delivery, so it's an important issue for the mother, the baby, and also the health system supporting them.

Anaemia also saps a woman’s energy and makes her more prone to infections.

Traditional treatment for anaemia or iron deficiency is to prescribe a daily supplement for three months. From personal experience, starting iron tablets when you really need them feels like a magic wand of energy got waved over you. However, nausea and constipation are very common side effects which put people off continuing the treatment.

The collated data from all the studies suggested that taking a 60mg to 120mg supplement of elemental iron once a week was enough to produce a similar haematological response to daily supplementation. This is a dosage typical of that currently prescribed daily: for example, the Ferro-Gradumet available at the chemist has 105mg of elemental iron.

A possible explanation for why an intermittent dose is just as effective as a daily dose is that our Intestinal cells are replaced every five to six days. Taken weekly, each dose would only expose the iron to new mucosal cells, improving absorption efficiency and reducing oxidative stress and side effects (This references findings from other clinical studies.)

The reviewers suggest that further research would be very useful, including research into providing other micronutrients along with the iron, and research into the side effects of iron supplementation.

The Cochrane Review titled "Intermittent iron supplementation for reducing anaemia and its associated impairments in adolescent and adult menstruating women" is available here.

One side effect of taking one iron tablet per week instead of seven? More money stays in your bank account.

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