Iron deficiency is one of the most common deficiencies in the UK, especially amongst women. However, you can have too much iron, which is also not good, so getting the balance right is really important.
In this article I am going to talk about the signs of iron deficiency, what causes it and what you can do to get more into your body.
Why do we need iron in the body?
Iron helps to make our red blood cells which transport oxygen around our bodies. We also need iron for development and growth. A lack of iron can lead to iron deficiency anaemia.
However, too much iron in the body can cause problems.
Men especially need to be careful, as it can lead to heart and liver problems and diabetes. Therefore, when choosing a multivitamin, it’s a good idea for men to take one without added iron.
If you are concerned about your iron levels, then I would recommend getting them checked before supplementing, or increasing your intake of iron-rich foods.
What are the causes of iron deficiency?
Common causes of iron deficiency include:
- A poor diet.
- Blood loss because of menstruation, this is especially true for women who have very heavy periods.
- Pregnancy and childbirth.
- Internal bleeding like peptic ulcers, or colorectal cancer.
- Not being able to absorb iron from your diet because of digestive issues.
- Chronic inflammation in the body.
Who is more at risk of iron deficiency?
The following groups are those at most risk of suffering from iron deficiency:
- Women who experience heavy periods.
- Pregnant women
- Infants and children who were born prematurely and were a low birth weight.
- Babies who don’t get enough iron from formula or breast milk. As children grow up, they need a healthy, varied diet.
- Vegans and vegetarians who don’t pay attention to the nutrients in their food. If changing your diet from eating meat, it’s really important that you ensure you are getting all your essential nutrients. So many vegans/vegetarians are not really healthy as many vegan foods are highly processed and contain ingredients that are actually not good for our health.
- Frequent blood donors have an increased risk of iron deficiency since giving blood can deplete iron stores.
What are the signs and symptoms of iron deficiency?
The signs of iron deficiency are broad and can include the following:
- Extreme fatigue and weakness
- Pale skin
- Fast heartbeat and shortness of breath
- Light-headedness, dizziness and headache
- Brittle nails
- Hair loss
- Cold hands and feet
- Inflammation or sore tongue
- Poor appetite
- Cravings for starch, dirt or ice
What are the symptoms of too much iron?
In a healthy body, when we have enough iron, our intestines reduce the absorption of the mineral from food and drink to prevent its levels from rising too high.
If you have a condition such as Hemochromatosis, or another iron overload disorder, your body won’t be able to excrete the extra iron fast enough, so it continues to build up.
Excess iron in the body gets stored in the liver, pancreas and heart and can lead to health issues such as diabetes, heart failure, liver problems, and Alzheimer’s.
What affects iron absorption?
Studies show that calcium affects iron absorption so you should never take calcium and iron supplements together (space them 2 hrs apart if taking both supplements), and don’t eat calcium-rich foods together with iron-rich foods.
Phytic acid found in legumes, nuts and seeds can affect absorption. One way to avoid this is to soak beans and legumes overnight before eating. You can also add kombu (a type of seaweed) when cooking the beans as the amino acids in kombu help soften beans and make them more digestible.
Tea and coffee contain tannins which inhibit iron absorption. So try not to eat food rich in iron or take iron supplements with tea or coffee as you won’t absorb iron well.
What enhances iron absorption?
Vitamin C really helps to absorb iron into our bodies. So try and eat iron-rich foods together with vitamin-C. If you have Hemochromatosis, you will need to be mindful of this.
Vegetables and fruits high in vitamin C include citrus fruits, berries, kiwi fruit, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and leafy greens like kale and spinach. Herbs, like thyme and parsley, are also high in Vitamin C.
Folic acid and B12 are co factors that help in the absorption and metabolism of iron. Good food sources of B12 include nutritional yeast flakes, fish, meat, and eggs. Excellent sources of folic acid are leafy greens, brussel sprouts, lentils and kidney beans.
Which Iron-rich foods you can add into your diet?
If you need to add some iron-rich foods into your diet, this list is a good place to start for inspiration:
- Wheat germ
- Pumpkin seeds
- Black strap molasses
- Dark leafy greens
- Lentils and chickpeas
- Kidney beans, pinot and white beans
- Red meat
Good iron supplements
Like I mentioned, it’s a good idea to get your iron levels checked by your GP before supplementing or increasing iron rich foods.
Some Iron tablets can lead to constipation, which causes other problems so I would try to get your iron from your diet first and then, if you need additional support, try a natural iron supplement.
Talk to your natural health provider or get advice from an independent health store.
I hope this article has helped answer some questions about iron deficiency. If you have been diagnosed with iron deficiency or have too much iron and would like advice on how to manage this naturally, then please get in touch with me via The Living Well Hub.