As far as nutrient deficiencies go, low Iron is a common and debilitating concern for many people. Often people notice that they are low in iron due to feeling generally fatigued. Not being able to exercise as long or becoming breathless more quickly could also be symptoms of iron deficiency, rather than a case of being unfit. Iron cannot be synthesised in the body and as such is required to be ingested, so it is important we ensure we consume enough iron rich foods.

Why do we need it?

Iron is used for many of the processes that occur in the body, including the creation of Haemoglobin in our blood, which is the protein that carries oxygen around our body for our body’s processes. Some of the body functions that require iron also include red blood cell production and releasing energy from cells. Iron also aids in our immunity. Iron is part of many enzymes and is used in many cell functions. Enzymes help with food digestion and other important reactions that occur in our body. When our body doesn’t get enough iron, all areas of our bodies can be affected.

Factors that increase demand:

Whilst our diet may contain plenty of iron rich foods, there are factors that increase the demand for iron in the body, including:

  • Achlorhydia – absence of hydrochloric acid in the gastric secretions

  • Excess intake of Calcium – if you are on a Calcium supplement, think about taking your iron supplement away from taking your Calcium

  • Haemorrhaging – your GP will be able to run some tests

  • Menstruation

  • Increased intake of antacids

  • Increased intake of coffee and tea

  • If you are pregnant

  • As a part of ageing

  • Excessive intake of dairy, sugar or fat.

Symptoms of Iron deficiency:

Some of the symptoms of low iron stores can be: 

  • Anaemia

  • Brittle nails

  • Spoon shaped or distorted nails

  • Cold sensitivity

  • Digestive disturbances

  • Fatigue

  • Poor immunity

  • Weakness

  • Headaches

  • Irritability

  • Visual disturbances

  • Mental confusion

  • Angina due to increased loads placed on the heart

  • Shortness of breath

  • Cold extremities

  • Heart palpitations

  • Bone pain and tenderness in the sternum

  • Numbness and tingling

  • Reduced myelin production – the sheath around the nerves – possibly increasing nerve pain.

Recommended Daily Allowance:

The recommended daily allowance of iron is 10-20mg per day per adult. It is noted that whilst we may ingest this amount or more a day, our absorption of iron is what matters. It has been said that we only absorb approximately 5-35% of all iron from foods that we eat. The best bioavailable source is said to be from meat and meat products. There are other good sources of iron called non-haeme iron, which are from plant sources.

Haem (animal) sources would include such foods as:

  • Meats including Chicken

  • Fish, including Salmon, Tuna, Shellfish, Clams and Oysters

  • Dairy products, including milk, cheese and yoghurt

  • Eggs.

Non-haem (non-animal) sources include:

  • Dark green leafy vegetables including Spinach and Kale

  • Other Vegetables such as Broccoli, Asparagus, Romain Lettuce, Swiss Chard, Brussel sprouts, Potatoes

  • Pulses such as Lentils and Kidney beans, Lima beans, Black Beans, Black Eyed Peas

  • Tofu

  • Dried fruits such as Dried Dates, Figs, Apricots, Raisins, Sun-dried Tomatoes,

  • Nuts and seeds such as Almonds, Pumpkin seeds, Sesame seeds or Tahini, Sunflower Seeds, Chia seeds

  • Wholegrain breads and cereal.

Synergistic Nutrients:

There are several nutrients that aid our bodies in absorbing iron, including:

  • Vitamins B2, B12 and C

  • Citrate (a citric acid)

  • Copper – specifically required for iron metabolism

  • Folic Acid – a form of water soluble Vitamin B9

  • Histidine – an essential amino acid found in protein

  • Lysine – an amino acid found in protein

  • Molybdenum – a trace mineral

  • Selenium – a trace mineral.

Some of these, such as Selenium and Citrate are usually found in foods that have a high iron content, foods such as Spinach. A combination of foods to increase the balance of these nutrients will raise the percentage of iron that our bodies will be able to absorb.

Note: Whilst there are some foods that have been fortified with iron, such as cereals, these are not recommended. Whole foods such as the ones listed above are always a preferred way for your body to ingest any vitamins and minerals.

It is important to note that whilst the general population understand that anaemia is reduced iron content in the blood, Anaemia is actually defined as a decrease in the number of red blood cells. There can be other causes of red blood cell reduction such as a B12 deficiency and a Folic acid deficiency. Whilst B12, Folic acid and Iron are usually all present together in foods, there are times when you may be deficient in one and not the other. For example, your iron might be low but your B12 is at acceptable levels. When being tested for iron deficiency, it would be appropriate to ask the doctor to also check the levels of the other two nutrients at the same time, as deficiencies in B12 and Folic Acid present with similar symptoms.

How to increase your iron absorption and intake:

  • Reduce your coffee and tea intake. When drinking coffee or tea, drink it away from meals to stop them interfering with your iron uptake.

  • If you are taking a calcium supplement, take it away from an iron rich meal or an iron supplement.

  • Increase your Vitamin C intake with your iron rich meal. This could be as simple as a freshly squeezed orange juice with your spinach, eggs, bacon and tomato breakfast.

  • Add iron rich foods to your lunch – such as lean meat, chicken or salmon with your salad. Include some tomatoes, red capsicum, baby spinach and fetta, and it’s a beautiful lunch time meal.

  • If you don’t eat meat, get a good variety of vegetables and pulses into your meal.

  • When thinking about a snack, think about iron rich snacks such as Kale Chips, or a home-made trail mix made with nuts and dried fruits.

  • Try the scrumptious salad recipe below to boost your iron.

Pumpkin and Spinach salad:

Ingredients: 

600g butternut pumpkin, deseeded, peeled, cut into wedges

2 teaspoons olive oil

2 teaspoons honey

2 teaspoons sesame seeds

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon honey, extra

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons wholegrain mustard

1 x 150g pkt baby spinach leaves

1 x 75g pkt toasted pine nuts

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 220°C. Line a baking tray with non-stick baking paper. Place the pumpkin in a large bowl. Drizzle with oil and honey. Season with salt and pepper. Gently toss until the pumpkin is well coated. Place in a single layer on the lined tray. Bake, turning once during cooking, for 25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and sprinkle evenly with the sesame seeds. Return to oven and bake for 5 minutes or until the seeds are lightly toasted. Remove from oven and set aside for 30 minutes to cool.

  2. Combine the lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, mustard and extra honey in a screw-top jar and shake until well combined. Season with salt and pepper.

  3. Place the pumpkin, spinach and pine nuts in a large bowl. Drizzle with the dressing and gently toss until just combined. Serve immediately.   (Source: Taste.com.au).

If you feel you may benefit from nutritional or supplement support, please contact your Osteopath at Head 2 Toe, or your Naturopath or Dietitian.  If you would like our recommendation on a Naturopath or Dietitian care, please contact us on 07) 3208 8308, info@head2toehealth.com or through our Contact page.

Written by Simone Pfuhl.

Simone is currently studying an Advanced Diploma in Naturopathy and is a Receptionist at Head 2 Toe Health. Simone has great interest in healing naturally through nutrition and education with the view to treat both humans and animals.

References:
1. http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/factsheets/basics/iron_-_are_you_getting_enough
2. http://bembu.com/vitamin-rich-foods
3. http://www.webmd.com/diet/iron-rich-foods
4. https://www.gpnotebook.co.uk/simplepage.cfm?ID=x20110720105313880069
5. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/anemia.html
6. http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/spotlight-high-iron
7. http://www.donateblood.com.au/files/pdfs/Why%20iron%20and%20haemoglobin%20are%20important%20June%202012.pdf
8. Clinical Medicine 2 subject, AIAS, Stones Corner.