Did you know that iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency and the leading cause of anemia in the United States? Iron is a mineral that helps you get enough oxygen throughout your body. Iron is needed to make hemoglobin which is part of the red blood cells that carry oxygen through the body.
If you don’t get enough iron, your body cannot get enough oxygen, and you will eventually develop anemia. Anemia can occur due to a shortage of two key nutrients in our bodies: vitamin B12 (and folic acid) and/or iron. Iron is also an important part of many enzymes in our body and is required in many cell functions.
This article will discuss the symptoms of anemia, as well as how to increase iron levels in your blood through nutrition and supplements. It will also include tips of how to improve iron absorption and which supplements are better for you. Causes of iron deficiency:
- Not getting enough iron from food. People who don’t eat meat may be at risk of iron deficiency if they don’t get enough iron from other foods.
- Inability to absorb iron due to diseases like celiac disease or if part of your small intestine has been removed
- Heavy bleeding, such as heavy periods or bleeding inside the body as in peptic ulcers or colorectal cancer.
- Pregnancy – many pregnant women suffer from iron deficiency as their iron needs to serve not only their own increased blood volume, but their growing fetus as well.
- Many people with chronic kidney disease (CKD) develop iron deficiency.
What are the symptoms of anemia?
When anemia become worse over time, symptoms include:
- Lack of concentration
- Shortness of breath
- Pale skin
- Delay normal growth and development in children
- Higher risk of infections
- Premature births and low birth weight babies
- Brittle nails
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat which can lead to heart problems
How much iron do we need to consume a day?
The recommended daily amount is 18 mg of iron a day for woman of reproductive age, 27 mg for pregnant women and 8 mg per day for men. Breastfeeding women can consume 9 mg a day since there is no menstruation during this period. Girls aged 14-18 need 15 mg of iron per day.
Which foods contain iron?
Food sources of iron are divided into two groups:
- Animal source – red meat, poultry, internal parts (such as heart and liver), eggs yolks and seafood.
- Vegetable source – the richest in iron are legumes, nuts and almonds, tahini, dried fruit, and green leafy vegetables such as parsley.
There are also iron-fortified foods like cereals or bread.
How to improve iron absorption?
To improve iron absorption from vegetable sources you need to consume it with vitamin C, such as in fresh vegetables. For example, you can eat lentil soup with chopped parsley and red pepper (capsicum) which are full of vitamin C. As a snack, you should choose walnuts and almonds.
This is because plant foods are different from animal foods when it comes to their iron content. In animal foods, iron is often attached to proteins called heme proteins, and referred to as heme iron. In plant foods, the iron is not attached to heme proteins and is classified as non-heme iron. The absorption rate of heme iron is usually higher and more efficient than that of non-heme iron.
What about iron supplements?
If you have anemia, after you’ve found the reason, you should consider taking iron supplements, and not just rely on nutrition. If you take dietary supplements in general, and in particular those of iron, you should consult your doctor, just like you do before taking medications.
In general, an iron supplement can come in several forms: capsule, syrup and intravenous infusion (in cases of indigestion and lack of absorption as in certain cases of intestinal diseases, cancer, etc.).
Which supplement is better?
It’s better to choose the supplement that will enable you to achieve maximum iron absorption, with minimal side effects. Possible side effects of taking iron supplements are abdominal pain
- Changes in stool color (find out what your stool can tell you about your health)
- General discomfort in the abdomen
These effects are much smaller if taking liquid supplements. Iron absorption of liquid supplement is far easier for the digestive system, and therefore has less side effects. In addition, you should take supplement whose iron absorption is coordinated with the body: iron taken in excess can cause damage – iron molecule may oxidize and act like free radicals that damage DNA.
What can interfere with iron absorption?
- Oxalic acid found in many green vegetables may delay the absorption of iron. For example: spinach is very rich in oxalic acid which binds to the iron and interferes with iron absorption in the intestine.
- Even phytic acid, which is found mostly in whole grains, may interfere with iron absorption. So although whole grains are a good source of iron themselves, the phytic acid they contain can stop your body absorbing iron from other foods and supplements.
- Also drinking tea, coffee, and chocolate interfere with iron absorption due to the high content of polyphenols, as well as calcium like in dairy products.
So the best way is to take an iron supplement along with eating a vegetable/fruit rich in vitamin C such as kiwifruit, orange, guava, strawberry, red pepper (capsicum) and apple.
Thanks for reading!