Updated: Feb 6, 2022
Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies, especially amongst women. Iron is a trace mineral found in every living cell in your body. Iron's most important role amongst others is to transport oxygen throughout the blood in your body, but also to support overall cellular health. Iron also plays a role in enzyme functions, helping you body to digest food and absorb nutrients from it.
What is iron deficiency?
Iron deficiency is most commonly linked to anemia, where there is a lack of red blood cells produced. Iron's role is also to help to metabolise proteins and produce hemoglobin (a type of protein found in red blood cells), that carries oxygen from your lungs throughout your body into your cells. If you are not able to produce enough oxygen-carrying red blood cells, then you body also struggles to transport oxygen to your brain, muscles, tissues, cells- leaving you feeing weak and exhausted. Low iron levels are linked to poor diet, blood loss and also to inability to absorb enough iron from your food.
Where is iron located in your body?
Majority of the 3-4 grams of iron in your body is present in the form of hemoglobin. The rest of the iron is stored in your liver, spleen and bone marrow and in a muscle tissue (myoglobin).
What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?
Shortness of breath
Trouble getting good restful sleep
Trouble with concentration, memory, learning
Irregular or fast heartbeats
Sores on your mouth or tongue
Weird cravings to eat things that are not food- clay, ice, dirt
A tingling feeling in your feet
Weaker immune system
Below people are at greater risk developing iron deficiency:
People with poor diets
People who donate blood on a frequent basis
People with cancer
Women who experience high menstrual bleeding
Pregnant or breastfeeding women
People with heart failure or kidney failure
People with celiac disease, Chrohn's disease or ulcerative colitis
Vegetarians, who don't substitute red meat with another iron rich food
People who exercise extensively as you sometimes can damage red blood cells
How can you test for iron deficiency?
It's good to do a test to understand the condition of your blood (CBC- complete blood count), which checks the levels of 10 different components of every major cell in your blood: red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.
To check specifically the level of iron in your body, you should do:
Ferritin test that measures transferrin, a protein that moves iron throughout your body. Approximately one-quarter of the total iron in the body is stored as ferritin. Most ferritin is found your liver, but it can also be present in bone marrow, spleen and muscles
Serum iron test that measures the amount of iron in your blood
Total iron-binding capacity (TIBC) which measures how well iron attaches to transferring and to other proteins in the blood.
How to increase iron levels in your body?
If your iron levels are low, it's also very important to get higher amounts of vitamin C in your diet as it helps to increase iron absorption. Women (between 19-50, when menstruating) need typically 18mg a day, while men need 8mg a day. Toddles need more iron than children because iron supports the process of growth and cognitive development. If you are a vegetarian, then you need to consume 1.8 times more iron-rich vegetarian food as meat's heme iron is more bioavailable for the body than heme iron from plant foods.
When you want to get enough absorbable iron form food, you need to consider the below:
When you eat different foods together, they can interact with each other and can either help your body's ability to absorb iron or they can make it harder to absorb iron.
As already said, animal foods contain heme iron, which is ore absorbable than iron found in plant foods. If you are a vegetarian, you might want to consider taking iron supplement.
Foods like meat and fish (containing heme-iron) enhance the body's ability to absorb non-heme iron from plant foods (like spinach and beans). Also foods containing vitamin C enhance non-heme iron absorption (eating leafy greens or citrus fruits with beans).
What should you eat to increase the iron in your body?
Majority of the people who eat a whole-food diet that contains a variety of vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, legumes, nuts and seeds, don't need to be concerned about.
Hereby you can find the foods highest in iron:
Organic free-range chicken
Foods that increase iron absorption
Foods that inhibit iron absorption
Certain substances found naturally in some foods and drinks can actually decrease your body's ability to absorb either heme and non-heme iron or both (foods that contain polyphenols, phytates, oxalates, calcium). It's important to understand that you should not completely avoid them from your diet as many of them contain iron (unless you are intolerant to specific foods in this list), but rather consume moderately. Also soaking, sprouting certain foods (nuts, seeds, legumes) helps to reduce the compounds affecting the absorption of iron. Variety is key here.
Calcium containing foods (milk, yoghurt, cheese, almonds, canned salmon, sardines, figs, broccoli)
Oxalates (kale, spinach, chocolate, tea, nuts, beets, wheat bran, rhubarb, strawberries, parsley, basil)
Polyphenols (coffee, cocoa, peppermint, apples, walnuts, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries)
Phytates (walnuts, sesame seeds, almonds, peas, lentils, whole grains, cereals)
Ideally you should try to get your iron through food. If you have too much iron in your blood, this is also not good either. This can happen either because of your genetics or over-doing with iron supplements. If you supplement with too much iron you can develop nausea, vomiting, constipation, stomach cramps. Also don't take calcium and iron supplements together as they might interfere with absorption. In some cases, taking a supplement may be necessary. But it's best to talk to your health-care provider who can recommend the most suitable iron supplement for you.