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Suspect you’re low in iron? Here’s our 5 top tips to boost your iron levels….

I've been asked by a couple of people in the last week about what foods to eat for low iron levels so I decided it would be a great topic to cover in today's article. It is something that concerns many people, being the most common nutrient deficiency in the world, in developing and developed countries alike (WHO, 2016). In fact, figures indicate that 25-30% of women of child-bearing age in Australia have a moderate form of iron deficiency, generally due to monthly blood loss. Although the highest at risk for deficiency are women of reproductive age, infants and the elderly, low iron levels may also be found in adult men and adolescents.

Why do we need iron?

So, let's start with why we need iron in the first place and what it does for us.

Iron is critical to human life and plays many important roles in our body.
This includes:
  • Helping to deliver oxygen through our body as it forms a major component of haemoglobin and myoglobin. Haemoglobin is part of a red blood cell that carries oxygen to the body's tissues. Myoglobin is part of the muscle cell that holds oxygen
  • Assisting in transforming food into energy
  • Involved in neurotransmitter production
  • Supports a healthy immune system

How do we become deficient in iron?

As iron is so critical to us, our body does have the ability to store some, mainly in the liver and bone marrow. Iron deficiency can occur however, if our intake does not meet the demands of our body over an extended period of time.

At times we have an increased need for iron, for example when pregnant, lactating or in periods of rapid growth (eg in childhood). When there is blood loss occurring this can also result in low iron levels. This blood loss could be from menstruation, haemorrhages, hookworm or gut inflammation for example.

Poor intake of iron containing foods or poor absorption of the iron from these foods can drive low iron levels. Absorption can be affected by a number of different factors including high intake of foods that inhibit iron absorption, low hydrochloric acid, dysbiosis, chronic antacid use, chronic diarrhoea and other gut disorders.

It is important to establish the cause of the iron deficiency in order to correct it. A Nutritional Therapist can help advise you on which testing to have done and then design a plan to help support you with whole foods and lifestyle recommendations.

How do I know if I’m low in iron?

Iron deficiency can lead to a serious condition called anaemia, which is caused by insufficient production of red blood cells or haemoglobin. Anaemia is characterised by extreme fatigue, which reflects a lack of oxygen being delivered to tissues and a build-up of carbon dioxide in the body. This is however, the last stage of iron deficiency.

Before anaemia there are mild to moderate forms of iron deficiency in which tissues are still functionally impaired.

Symptoms may include: pallor, dizziness, fatigue/tiredness, headaches, poor immune system, poor concentration

Top 5 tips to boost your iron levels

  1. Eat foods that are high in iron
    There are two forms of iron found in foods. One is haem-iron and the other is non-haem iron. Both forms are important but non-haem iron is less easily absorbed. It's absorption can be increased by eating it alongside certain foods and avoiding others which inhibit it's absorption in the same meal.
    Haem-iron is found in meats and is easily absorbed by our body. The best sources of this include calf and chicken liver, beef, chicken, turkey and fish. Non-haem iron is found in plant foods. The following are very good sources: green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, collard and beet greens. Almonds, pumpkin and sesame seeds, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas and haricot beans are also very good sources.
  2. Eat foods high in vitamin C
    Non-haem iron, or the sort that comes from plant foods, is absorbed much more efficiently when eaten with vitamin C. To increase your absorption of plant sources of iron, eat foods rich in vitamin C in the same meal. Good sources of vitamin C include guava, bell pepper, kiwi, oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, papaya, broccoli, sweet potato, pineapple, cauliflower, kale, lemon juice, and parsley.
  3. Avoid drinking tea and coffee with your meals
    Tea and coffee contain polyphenols (plant compounds) like tannic acid that actually bind to iron so that we are unable to absorb it. To avoid this, drink tea and coffee between meals instead of with your meal.
  4. Reduce phytic acid content of foods
    Phytates are a substance present in cereal bran, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, which inhibit absorption of iron. Soaking nuts, beans and grains greatly reduces their phytic acid content. It has also been seen that in meat eaters the phytic acid impact on iron levels is negligible.
    Cooking and fermenting food can also reduce the phytic acid content.
  5. Avoid consuming milk or milk products with your meal for maximum iron absorption
    Calcium, particularly from milk and milk products is also an inhibitor of iron absorption. Eat dairy products as snacks between meals or with the meals that are lower in iron content.

Iron Supplementation

If you suspect that your iron levels are low, it is important that you get your levels tested before supplementing with iron. Iron levels can be tested by your GP with a simple blood test.

We have a limited capacity to excrete iron so it can build up in our body. Too much iron is toxic to children and can cause free radical damage in adults.

Some people can experience adverse effects when supplementing with iron. This can include nausea, constipation, diarrhoea, heartburn and upper gastric pain. This can be reduced by taking with food.

Remember: if supplementing with iron, take it away from other mineral supplements.

Other minerals like calcium, magnesium and zinc in particular can impact iron absorption so it is best taken at a different time of day to supplements containing these nutrients.

In summary:

  • Iron is critical to life and plays many important roles in our bodies.
  • Symptoms of iron deficiency can include: pallor, dizziness, fatigue/tiredness, headaches, poor immune system, poor concentration.
  • There are foods you can eat that will enhance iron absorption and others which can inhibit it. Eating vitamin C rich foods with non-haem iron sources (plant foods) will enhance absorption. Avoiding tea, coffee and milk products with meals will prevent them inhibiting iron uptake. Soaking nuts, beans and grains helps to reduce phytic acid content which also inhibits iron absorption.
  • Both low and high iron levels can be dangerous for our health so it is important to have your levels tested if you suspect you are low and before supplementing with iron.
  • When looking to address iron deficiency the root cause should be identified for each individual.
  • A Nutritional Therapist will be able to provide advice and design a food plan to support your individual needs and help normalise your iron levels.
Yours in good health, naturally! Victoria x

Sources:

  • College of Naturopathic Medicine (CNM). 2013. Vitamins & Minerals.
  • Liska et al (2004). Clinical Nutrition: A Functional Approach 2nd edn. USA. The Institute for Functional Medicine
  • The world's healthiest foods. (2013). Available at: http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=108 (Accessed: 30 November 2013)
  • Murray M & Pizzorno J. (2012). The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. Third Edition. Atria Paperback. New York
  • Osieki H (2007). The Nutrient Bible. 7th edn. Australia. Bio concepts publishing
  • Sarris J & Wardle J. (2010). Clinical Naturopathy: An evidence-based guide to practice. Elsevier Australia
  • World Health Organisation. 2016. Micronutrient deficiencies; Iron deficiency anaemia. Available at: http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/ida/en/ (Accessed: May 2016)
  • World Health Organisation and Food and Agriculture Organisation (WHO/FAO). 2001. Iron Deficiency Anaemia. WHO/NHD/01.3


 

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