According to the World Health Organization, probably as much as 80% of the world population is iron deficient, with over 30% suffering from iron deficiency anemia. Women, children, and infants are typically at higher risk for deficiency. I see this in my clinic a lot – far too often, I see iron or its storage form – ferritin – at sub optimum levels. In fact, 9 out of 10 people who come into my office all arrive with some level of iron deficiency. So let’s look at this iron issue a little more closely, and then talk about how to tackle it from a natural perspective.
What is Iron? Iron is a mineral which is present in many different types of food, or added to food products. It is also available in supplement form. In the body, iron is a crucial and necessary element in the formation of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a key component of red blood cells that allows for oxygen transfer from the lungs to other areas of the body such as muscle or organ tissue. Iron is also necessary for proper cellular and muscle function, and connective tissue formation.
Different types of Iron. Basically, there are two different forms of iron – heme and non-heme. The majority of heme iron comes from animal food – meats such as beef, lamb, and specific sources of seafood and poultry. Non-heme iron is usually obtained from plants and other iron-fortified foods, including some iron supplements.
How is Iron Measured? There are several different ways of measuring iron levels in the body, and certain measurements can be taken depending on the stage of iron depletion. The primary lab that’s typically run is serum Ferritin – this is the storage form of iron and is usually an early indicator of iron depletion at any stage. And it is certainly a lab that I run, prior to prescribing iron supplements to any of my patients.
Symptoms of Iron Deficiency. The number one symptom of possible iron deficiency is general fatigue. Combined with weakness. shortness of breath, pale skin and nails, flaky or peeling nails, lightheadedness, or cold hands feet, these are just a handful of potential symptoms. Keep in mind though that even if you suffer from any of these symptoms, that doesn’t automatically mean you are iron deficient. Lab testing is the only way to ultimate diagnosis and confirm iron deficiency anemia, so make sure you see your Naturopathic Physician before you decide to self-prescribe a supplement.
The total amount of iron that your body carries at any given time though is based on how much you take in, how much you absorb, how much you lose, and how much you store. These four elements are taken into consideration every time we look at conditions such as iron deficiency anemia, one of the most common nutritional deficiency, and one that affects women and children more so than anyone else.
So how can I increase my Iron Absorption and intake more Naturally? Supplementation aside, let’s look no further than your kitchen.
- Start using a cast iron pan. This past Christmas I received one as a gift, and believe me I was thrilled! Cast iron pans was something I grew up with as a child – my mother only using cast iron to cook everything with. And I am now ever so gradually, switching out all my cookware to cast iron. Using a cast iron pan is by far the quickest way to take in iron, as the lack of chemicals (such as in non-stick cookware) allows for the food to absorb the iron, thereby bumping up nutrient levels.
- Add Heme iron to your diet. Red meat such as beef, chicken livers, fish, seafood, and oysters are all excellent sources of heme.
- Consume vegetables and fruits higher in Vitamin C. Absorption of iron improves greatly when taken alongside Vitamin C. You may even see this in certain supplements. Berries, red peppers, lentils, are just a few examples of foods to consume to help you out.
- Increase your intake of dark, leafy greens. Spinach, swiss chard, broccoli, kale, dandelion greens, arugula, asparagus are a handful of examples of vegetables that contain iron, in additional to other vitamins and minerals – Vitamin C included. Make sure you cook them briefly, to allow for improved absorption. And definitely increase your consumption if you choose not to eat animal meats.
- Swap out regular iodized salt for mineral salts. Turn your salt from white to pink. Pink Himalayan Salt that is. The reason why it’s pink is due to iron oxide levels, and is considered far healthier in addition to other micronutrients and trace minerals that Himalayan salt contains.
- Nuts, seeds, and beans are excellent sources of iron. Make sure you cook your beans well, such as soybean, or black bean. In addition, if you are starting from a dry bean stage, soak your beans in a mild acid such as apple cider vinegar. allowing the phytic acid in the beans to break down, and thus promote better iron absorption in the body.
- Avoid drinking caffeinated products. Black tea, coffee, colas, and chocolate – while yummy and probably habitual, these actually reduce iron absorption. Specifically, the tannins in tea or coffee and phosphates in colas and chocolate act as a barrier and can reduce uptake of iron by at least 50%. So if you are eating iron-rich foods, yet washing it all down with tea, coffee or colas, then you aren’t really doing yourself a favour here. Instead, swap your regular tea with a healthier option like mineral-rich nettle tea if you really need to drink with your meal. Or – keep your caffeinated drinks separate from your iron-rich foods or supplements.
- Separate out your dairy products from your iron-rich foods or supplements. Milk and other dairy foods also prohibits absorption, so drink or eat them away from your main meals.
On a final note, too much iron can be hazardous as well. Men and post-menopausal women typically have lower iron needs, excess iron conditions such as hematochromatosis rules out iron intake, as well as overdosing iron in infants and children can be fatal if taken improperly. Recommended daily intakes of iron are between 18 – 28 mg for women, and about 8 mg for men. And above all – get your blood tested to confirm and diagnosis iron deficiency or excess, or to monitor levels if you are on supplementation. And let a Naturopathic Doctor monitor it.
To your Health,
Dr. Olena Gill is a Licensed Naturopathic Physician and Registered Acupuncturist (2003). She practices acupuncture and TCM at Indigo Integrative Health/The Mind-Body Connection Centre in Parksville and Squamish, BC.
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Disclaimer: No information given here or in any post or page on this site should be construed as medical advice. Always consult your Naturopathic Physician to receive professional evaluation and treatment.
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