Iron is a metal that is required for numerous functions within our bodies but it’s main role is for the production of haemoglobin – the protein that carries oxygen in our blood. Haemoglobin picks up oxygen from the lungs and then transports it to every cell in our body. Haemoglobin is responsible for giving blood its characteristic bright red colour.
Iron is mainly absorbed from our food and drink in the duodenum and upper jejeunum in the intestines. We absorb less than 10% of dietary iron; animal sources (haem iron) are more readily absorbed than plant sources (non haem iron). This is why many vegetarians or non-red meat eaters are prone to iron deficiency.
The only way iron can be excreted from the body is through bleeding so regulation of iron levels occurs at the site of absorption. The more iron we have in our body, the less we absorb and vice versa.
Factors inhibiting absorption
High iron levels
Phytates in wheat and wholegrains
Oxalic acid found in coffee, tea, spinach, rhubarb
Polyphenols and tannins found in tea and coffee
Digestive disorders – IBS, Chrons, Celiac disease
Blood loss from the digestive tract
Low stomach acid or over use of anti-acid medications
Did you know that drinking tea may reduce iron absorption by up to 60% and coffee by up to 40%? (Lancet 2007). A breakfast that consists of cereal with milk, yoghurt and berries and a cup of tea or coffee for example is not the best way to be getting your iron levels up. A spinach and tomato omelette with fresh parsley and a fresh orange would be a better option and avoid drinking tea or coffee with meals.
Vitamin C enhances iron absorption so always include vitamin C when eating iron rich foods such as greens, tomatoes and capsicum with steak, lemon juice on salad dressings or vitamin C rich fruit such as citrus, strawberries, kiwi and cherries.
Once absorbed, iron is carried by the blood to the bone marrow, where new blood cells are produced. Iron is combined with proteins to make haemoglobin in the bone marrow. Extra iron can be stored in the liver as ferritin. Our bodies are also rather thrifty as they can recycle iron from old and worn out red blood cells to make new ones.
If excess iron builds up in the body, such as with the genetic condition haemochromatosis, excess ferritin can be deposited in the liver and heart leading to serious organ damage. This is why haemochromatosis patients require regular bloodletting to avoid iron toxicity issues. This is also why taking iron supplements without having your iron levels checked first via a blood test can be extremely dangerous if not fatal.
Caution: Never take iron supplements without first having a professional blood test and prescription.
If we are low in iron, our haemoglobin can be affected and we cannot carry enough oxygen to vital organs and tissues. This can result in symptoms of iron deficiency.
Signs and Symptoms of low iron
Tiredness and lethargy
Constant infections or colds
Lowered immune system
Increased heavy metal toxicity
Decreased selenium and glutathione (antioxidants) levels
Body signs of low iron
Pale face, dark circles under the eyes
Pale colour inside the lower eyelid
Pale or blue tinged coloured nail bed
Dry, brittle hair
Impaired brain function, lack of mental alertness
Cold hands and feet
Sensitivity to cold temperatures
Poor thyroid function
Foods that are high in iron include – Red meat, liver, oysters, mussels, chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans and spinach.
If you suspect that you may be low in iron, the best way to have your iron levels checked by a blood test. G.P’s, naturopaths and nutritional medicine practitioners can refer you for a pathology test. Certain conditions such as vegans, vegetarians, IBS, pregnancy or malabsorption syndromes may require supplementation, injection or in extreme cases iron transfusions but on the whole a well-balanced diet can significantly improve low iron levels and get you back to feeling fab again.
Fiona Tuck is a Skincare Expert, accredited Nutritional Medicine Practitioner and a member of the Australian Society of Traditional Medicine. Her training in nutritional medicine, combined with over 25 years’ experience across multiple health and wellness disciplines is the foundation to her holistic approach to nutritional health.