Iron is an important mineral required for a diverse range of body processes including; energy production, protein and carbohydrate metabolism, DNA synthesis, and thyroid and immune function (to name but a few). However, it is probably best known for its role in energy production as often fatigue is a primary symptom of iron depletion or deficiency. This is because iron is required by your red blood cells to transport oxygen from your lungs to your organs and muscles.
Inadequate iron levels for a prolonged period can result in iron deficiency anaemia resulting in your heart having to work harder to pump the oxygen around your body. It is also associated with a variety of uncomfortable and sometimes debilitating health issues including kidney disease and diabetes.
How common is iron deficiency in Australia?
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (following a survey in 2011-12) estimated that 4.5% of the Australian population over age 18 were at risk of iron-deficiency anaemia with women being at greater risk than men due to their lower intake and greater need).
Those most at risk of iron deficiency include; the elderly, menstruating women, pregnant and lactating women, premature and small babies and young children. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan you also have a higher risk of iron deficiency.
What are the common symptoms or signs of iron deficiency?
Common signs and symptoms of iron deficiency include:
- Light headiness
- Pale skin
- Poor sleep
- Restless legs
- Regular and/or recurring colds and other illnesses
- Low mood
- Poor pregnancy outcomes
Remember, these symptoms may be a result of other health issues which is why it’s important to get your symptoms assessed and avoid a self-diagnosis of iron deficiency.
Where can you get iron?
There are two sources of iron:
Haem iron – found in animal products, especially meat, fish and poultry. Organ meats are particularly high in iron, although not everyone loves them.
Non-haem iron – found in plant food such as nuts (particularly cashew and almonds), pumpkin seeds, fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and tofu.
Non-haem iron is harder for the body to absorb than haem iron due to the presence of oxalates and phytates (found in a variety of plant food) which inhibit iron absorption. Therefore, this does make it a little more tricky to obtain adequate dietary iron if you are a vegan or vegetarian. It can certainly be done, you just need to make sure you’re eating lots of iron rich plant food.
How much iron do you need every day?
How much you need depends on your age, gender and your current iron status (as this partly determines how much iron is absorbed from your food). Therefore, it’s important to be eating a wide variety of lean meat, fish, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds and vegetables every day to ensure you are getting enough iron.
The recommended daily intake of iron for men is 8mg per day and for menstruating women it’s 18mg per day. Children and adolescents need between 8 and 15mg per day depending on their age and gender (with teenage girls requiring 15mg per day). If you’re pregnant you need 27mg per day to ensure both you and your growing baby have enough iron.
If you’re a menstruating female, below is an example of a one day diet to meet your iron needs.
Breakfast – 3 egg omelette with spinach, mushrooms and tomato
Morning tea – A handful of almonds and cashews with a piece of fruit
Lunch – Steamed salmon with a salad of quinoa, spinach, rocket, cucumber, radish and mint.
Afternoon tea – Vegetable sticks with hummus
Dinner – Healthy spaghetti bolognaise with ½ beef and ½ lentils on zucchini noodles (or wholemeal/gluten-free pasta). Serve with a side of steamed kale drizzled with lemon juice.
Supper – A handful of berries and seeds with coconut yoghurt
Are you consuming enough iron to meet your needs?
What should you do if you think you are low in iron?
The first thing to do is see your doctor or naturopath for an assessment of your symptoms. If it is suspected that low iron might be the cause of your symptoms, get your iron levels checked. This is done via a blood test which your doctor or naturopath can order for you. You will need to complete a blood test that checks serum iron, serum ferritin, transferrin and transferrin saturation (collectively known as iron studies) as well as an FBE (full blood examination) to assess haemoglobin. Once you have the results speak to your health professional about whether you need to supplement with iron, and if so, what form of iron you need to take, at what dose, how often and for how long.
If you have been diagnosed with iron deficiency there are some ways you can boost your iron levels in conjunction with iron supplementation including:
Pairing iron rich plant foods with foods high in Vitamin C
For example, if you were to eat green leafy vegetables, by squeezing fresh lemon juice over the top (which is high in vitamin C) you will enhance the absorption of iron naturally found in the green leafy vegetables.
Make sure you are getting enough Vitamin A in your diet
You need good levels of Vitamin A for iron absorption. Good sources of vitamin A include; orange vegetables and fruit, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Avoid drinking tea with your meals
The polyphenols found in tea inhibit iron absorption.
Cook with cast iron cookwear
The iron from the cookwear will leach into your food giving you a little boost in your iron intake.
Make sure you get advice from your naturopath about how to take your supplements
Some minerals will inhibit iron absorption whilst some vitamins will enhance it. Iron will also impact the absorption of other minerals such as calcium and zinc. Therefore some supplements should be taken together and others separated. So it’s always best to be guided by your naturopath when taking nutritional supplements.
The only time you should be supplementing with iron is when you have confirmed low iron levels on a blood test.
Can you have too much iron?
Yes. Iron is toxic to the body in high doses so more is not necessarily better. Also, some people have a condition called haemochromatosis whereby they absorb iron more readily than others. This can result in an accumulation of excess iron which may result in tissue or organ damage….one more reason to have your iron studies done occasionally and interpreted in the context of your iron intake and blood losses.