Importance of Iron in Human Health

 

Are you fatigued, having recurrent infections, or experiencing foggy thinking?  Are you concerned your hair is thinning and wondering why? Feeling dizzy, lacking strength and endurance?  These may all be signs that you are experiencing iron deficiency.

Iron is an essential element for blood production and is incredibly important to transport oxygen and nutrients from the lungs to the cells of the body.  New red blood cells are produced every 120 days and require iron, vitamin B12, folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin C to develop. Iron deficiency can occur with or without anemia.  You may experience symptoms including impairments of cognitive and immunity mechanisms, work capacity, energy, and hair loss when stores are low.

Iron deficiency in pregnancy is associated with a variety of poor health outcomes including risk of sepsis, maternal mortality, perinatal mortality, low birth weight, and reduced cognitive development including attention and memory in infants and children.  It can take time for iron stores to build and if present, to correct in the case of iron deficiency anemia. If thinking about pregnancy, it is therefore, important that you work with a physician knowledgeable in preconception health to help you optimize healthy outcomes for you and baby before you get pregnant.

You can become depleted in iron by –

  • Excessive bleeding. If you have internal bleeding due to a stomach ulcer, colon polyps, colon cancer, or other reasons, iron deficiency will develop. This will also happen quickly for women who menstruate heavily and often.

  • Poor iron absorption. This could be due to inflammation and/or pathology in the GI tract. Ask your naturopathic doctor to assess and help you improve your overall GI health.

  • Poor dietary intake of iron. It is important to track how much protein and iron you are getting on a daily basis. Have your doctor help you do this with adequate dosing and suggestions for your diet.

  • Having a greater need for iron:

    • Athletes (higher need for oxygen delivery to the cells)

    • Growth (in children and adolescents, growth spurts will require more oxygen for cell production and growth; improved verbal learning and memory can occur when iron is administered to iron deficient girls)

    • Pregnancy (growing a new human requires a great deal of oxygen and nutrients)

    • Menstruation (especially in women who have heavy menses or menstruate more frequently than what is considered normal)

    • Breastfeeding  (replenishing mother as she passes some along to baby)

What can you do?

Make sure to test BEFORE you begin supplementation.

Ask your doctor to test your iron levels. Important tests include 1) A Complete Blood Count (CBC); 2) Iron Panel; 3) Ferritin (Iron stores that will become depleted before the blood cells are affected).

Whole food forms of iron are generally safe and more easily absorbed and metabolized. You may consider incorporating some of the following into your diet:

Organ Meats like Liver and Giblets

Oysters

Chickpeas

Pumpkin Seeds

Soybeans

Lentils

Cooked Dark Leafy Greens (cooked better than raw for iron content)

Red Beet Root (steamed, dehydrated, baked, sautéed)

Peaches

Black Elderberry

Burdock Root

Chickweed

Lemongrass

Parsley

Dark Chocolate (70-80% cocoa or greater)

Botanicals that can help with absorption include: Red Raspberry leaf, Rhodiola rosaea, Rumex crispus, Stellaria media, and Urtica diocia. Make sure to discuss if any of these botanicals are appropriate for you. Caution: Be careful taking botanicals if pregnant or nursing. Make sure to discuss with your doctor.

Other tips for iron absorption:

  • Avoid taking iron with calcium/dairy.

  • Avoid taking iron with chamomile, peppermint, black tea, coffee, wine, or high fiber meals.

  • Avoid taking iron with foods high in phytates.

    • TIP: you may soak foods with phytates (e.g. oatmeal) up to an hour before cooking to decrease phytic acid content. Just make sure to discard the phytic acid water after soaking.

  • Take Vitamin C with iron supplementation to increase absorption.

Adequate iron stores can help improve brain function, ability to concentrate, memory, physical endurance, mood, libido, healing times, overall immune health, and energy levels. Having a doctor help guide you on specific dosages and iron forms is important, as you don’t want to overdo iron supplementation; too much if not needed, can be harmful.