By: @curawellness.co, www.curawellness.co
Iron is an essential nutrient required for many metabolic processes. Most importantly, it's required for the transportation of oxygenated blood from the lungs to the rest of the body. Despite how vital iron is for our entire circulatory system, many people often struggle with either a lack of iron-rich foods in their diet, or on the contrary, absorbing too much iron which threatens their health. Both too little and too much iron can become detrimental so it's important to find the right balance to protect against iron deficiency and iron overload.
Common Symptoms of Iron Deficiency include:
- Pale skin and fingernails
- Brittle and spooned nails
- Cold extremities
- Chest pain, elevated heartbeat, shortness of breath
- Glossitis (enlarged tongue)
- Hair loss or brittle and dry skin
Heme vs Non-Heme Iron
There are two different forms of iron from dietary sources: heme and non-heme iron.
Heme iron is obtained from animal products and is more readily absorbed as opposed to plant-based sources. Animal protein contains molecules that help enhance the absorption of iron.
Non-heme iron is less bioavailable as it requires other factors to enhance absorption, and is also influenced by dietary factors that can reduce absorption such as phytates (found in legumes, grains, and nuts) and tannins (found in coffee, black tea, and chocolate). Non-heme iron is found in plant-based sources such as legumes, vegetables, fruits, and pulses.
It’s important to consume a variety of both heme and non-heme sources to ensure you obtain a well balanced source of iron. See below for a list of contributors to iron deficiency along with barriers to absorption.
Insufficient Consumption of Iron-Rich Foods
Typically common for vegetarians and vegans, however regardless of your dietary preferences, a lack of iron-rich foods in general (heme and non-heme iron) may potentially result in iron deficiency
As mentioned earlier, the presence of phytates or tannins with an iron-rich meal will reduce the ability to absorb the iron as it binds to the phytates and tannin instead. It is also possible for some nutrients, such as calcium, to compete with iron for absorption.
Poor Digestive Function
Hypochlorhydria (i.e. low hydrochloric/gastric acid) in the stomach often results in nutritional deficiencies, as optimal levels of gastric acid is required for efficient absorption of nutrients. Low appetite is just one of the signs that you may have low hydrochloric acid and should incorporate more digestive enzymes and bitters into your diet to help stimulate digestion. This can look like adding lemon juice to meals or starting your day with a warm lemon water, having apple cider vinegar shots 20 minutes before meals, and consuming more bitter greens like rocket and dandelion greens.
Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (i.e. fight or flight response) which shunts blood flow away from the digestive system. This can lead to poor digestion and nutrient absorption, therefore resulting in possible iron deficiency.
Women have an increased susceptibility to iron deficiency due to the amount of blood they lose each month during their menstrual cycle, especially if you’re a woman that experiences heavy blood flow during menstruation.
Tips for Enhancing Iron Absorption
- Consume sufficient amounts of iron-rich foods, including a variety of both heme and non-heme sources
- Avoid phytates and tannin sources with meals. Drink your coffee/tea at least 30 mins to 1 hour away from iron-rich foods. Soaking phytates sources (e.g. legumes, pulses, and beans) prior to cooking also helps to reduce the content of phytates, which minimises the inhibitory effect on iron absorption
- Include more digestive enzymes and bitters to stimulate gastric secretions and enhance overall nutrient absorption
- Consume iron rich foods with Vitamin C sources to increase absorption
- Investigate through further testing under professional guidance especially if you’re experiencing any symptoms mentioned above. It’s important to test your entire iron studies, as well as haemoglobin and general full blood chemistry prior to considering supplementation or an iron infusion as this may cause more harm than good, depending on all your levels.
If you’re unsure, please contact Tayla via email firstname.lastname@example.org, Instagram @curawellness.co or book in for a naturopathic consultation (available to anyone in Australia).
Gattermann, N., Muckenthaler, M. U., Kulozik, A. E., Metzgeroth, G., & Hastka, J. (2021). The Evaluation of Iron Deficiency and Iron Overload. Deutsches Arzteblatt international, 118(49), 847–856. https://doi.org/10.3238/arztebl.m2021.0290
Ning, S., & Zeller, M. P. (2019). Management of iron deficiency. Hematology. American Society of Hematology. Education Program, 2019(1), 315–322. https://doi.org/10.1182/hematology.2019000034
Whitney, E., Rolfes, S. R., Crowe, T., & Walsh, A. (2019). Understanding nutrition 4th ed. Cengage Learning