A little bit about iron
Iron is an essential trace mineral used by the body to create haemoglobin, the protein component of our red blood cells. Our red blood cells transport oxygenated blood from our lungs around the body to feed and nourish our tissues.
Because it has such an important role in the circulatory system, when the levels of iron and ferritin (our bodies storage form of iron) drop below recommend amounts we can experience symptoms such as:
- Relenting fatigue
- Brain fog & poor concentration
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- Changes in mood
- Cold hands and feet
There are many reasons why we as humans can suffer from iron deficiency. Below are some of the more common reasons we see this nutrient deficient in our patients.
- Lack of iron rich foods in the diet
Dietary iron occurs in two forms: heme and non-heme.
Heme iron is obtained primarily from the consumption of meat, poultry, eggs (yolk) and seafood. Heme sources of iron are highly bio-available and are more readily absorbed by our digestive system.
Non-heme iron is found in pulses, legumes, vegetables and fruits.
Non-heme sources of iron are less bioavailable and are strongly impacted by other factors in the diet, including dietary presence of phytates (found in grains, nuts and legumes), polyphenols and tannins (found in coffee, black tea, chocolate).
Certain nutrients such as calcium can also compete with iron for absorption in the body.
- Poor digestive function
Treating iron deficiency by increasing iron rich food sources doesn't always work. This is because our iron absorption relies heavily on the health and functioning of our digestive system, in particular our ability to secrete gastric acid/hydrochloric acid.
Iron is absorbed in the duodenum (highest section of our small intestine), and an optimal pH balance between the stomach and small intestine is required to enhance its absorption. We need the stomach to be acidic and the intestine to be alkaline for iron to be absorbed. Low gastric acid (hypochlorhydria) reduces iron absorption substantially by negatively impacting on this pH balance.
Factors affecting the release of gastric acid
- Stress - our body directs its attention away from digestion and towards organs for survival e.g. heart & lungs
- Nutrient deficiencies - we need certain nutrients such as zinc and B vitamins to make gastric acid.
- Low protein diets - we release gastric acid in response to consuming food and we release more of it when we need to break down larger complete proteins likes we find in meat products. When we are consuming a solely plant based diet our body limits its gastric acid secretion as it doesn't need as much of it to break down plant based foods.
- Gastrointestinal infections
Certain bacterial infections such as Helicobacter Pylori (H.Pylori) can inhibit iron absorption by decreasing gastric acid release. These bacteria along with other intestinal parasites can also reduce levels of iron in the body as they also utilise iron as a food source.
- Menstruation and energy input & output
As women we are at more of a risk of iron deficiency compared to men because we menstruate each month. If you experience a heavy flow due to an underlying gynaecological condition or hormone imbalance your chances of deficiency are higher.
The balance of energy input and output is also important to acknowledge throughout the menstrual cycle, remembering that excessive strenuous exercise can deplete iron levels in the body.
Holistic diet & lifestyle advice to increase iron levels:
- Eat more iron rich foods in the diet
- Heme Iron - Lean red meat, organ meats e.g. Pâté, fish (mackerel, sardines), seafood (oysters, prawns, scallops), poultry, eggs
- Non Heme Iron - dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, beet greens, dandelion greens, silverbeet), broccoli, peas, legumes & pulses.
- Soak beans, legumes and pulses before cooking to reduce phytates.
- Avoid drinking coffee or black tea with your meals.
- Consume your iron rich foods with foods high in vitamin C to increase absorption.
- Holistically support digestive function and stomach acid production.
- Balance high intensity exercise with restorative movement and rest practices.
Testing & Supplementation
The body is usually pretty savvy with maintaining its iron levels by reaching into its stores (ferritin) to top up when iron levels in the diet drop. We recommend testing iron levels prior to any form of supplementation as high amounts of iron can actually be very detrimental to our health.
Supplementation of iron can be used to recorrect or manage iron deficiency however as you may know recognise it is often only a small part of a holistic treatment protocol.
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