As a Naturopath, I often request patients to have functional testing, plus regular blood tests. This is to accurately determine imbalances in the body and where to therefore focus treatment.
One of the most common imbalances which present is related to iron levels in the body. When iron and the carrier molecule of iron, called ferritin, become too high, this can contribute to metabolic problems such as insulin resistance and more chronic issues with organ damage. On the other hand, when iron levels hit rock bottom, complications of low oxygen occur.
It is important to know where your iron levels sit, to know what individualised dietary changes can support you back to optimal health.
WHY IS IRON IMPORTANT
Iron is required for proteins in the body. Haemoglobin is the iron-containing protein in red blood cells, responsible for transporting oxygen from the lungs, to the body tissues. Here the oxygen is exchanged for Carbon Monoxide. Myoglobin is a protein which stores oxygen in the muscles, allowing them to function properly. Other proteins which contain iron include energy producing Cytochromes, together with proteins required for DNA production.
Iron also plays important roles in connective tissue and neurotransmitter production, as well as maintaining a healthy immune function.
Just with anything, too much iron is not a good thing. Issues with high iron and ferritin levels are often caused by the genetic condition Hemachromotosis, where iron easily builds up in the system. Undiagnosed and untreated, this causes the tissues of the body to literally rust, leading to liver, pancreas, heart, brain and joint damage, cancer and metabolic conditions. Symptoms of low iron symptoms such as low energy, muscle pain and mood swings also occur with high iron levels.
Anaemia is a lowering of the quality of blood, through a reduction in either the number of red blood cells or the amount of haemoglobin in the blood. This is caused by a severe depletion in iron stores.
In anaemia, the red blood cells become pale and small and their oxygen carrying capacity is reduced. Due to iron’s importance in oxygenation of the cells, low iron levels can contribute to lethargy and fatigue, as well as shortness of breath. Muscular activity, cell building and repair also slow down.
CAUSE, SIGNS & SYMPTOMS OF LOW IRON
Depending on the severity of iron deficiency, you may experience the following with depleted iron stores:
- Pale skin
- Tired and breathless upon exertion
- Brain fog and poor concentration difficulties
- Racing heart or palpitations
- Frequent headaches
- Drop in blood pressure when standing from a sitting or lying position
- Cracked or reddened tongue
- Loss of appetite
- Strange food cravings (dirt and ice cubes)
- Weakened immune system
Anaemia often occurs in children and menstruating women and can be caused by:
- Acute blood loss
- B12 or Folate deficiencies
- Enlarged spleen
- Genetic hemolytic anemia, such as sickle cell anemia, and thalassemia
If iron deficiency is ongoing after diet changes have been made, it is important to seek the underlying cause of your iron deficiency.
SOURCES OF IRON
If you have a deficiency in iron, it is important to support your levels, either through supplementation (initially when levels are highly depleted) and dietary changes for 90- 120 days. This is the lifespan of a Red Blood Cell and therefore iron will be needed in higher quantities for at least this period of time.
Nutrient rich foods help to support iron levels. Although they do contain oxalic acid, green leafy vegetables are very important to consume daily. They contain high amounts of iron and vitamin K, and the chlorophyll molecule in green vegetables resembles the haemoglobin molecule.
Meats are called heme iron sources and are more efficiently absorbed, than non-heme vegetable sources. Organ meats are very rich in iron- but be sure you buy organic to avoid toxic accumulation.
Include plenty of foods rich in iron, B vitamins and vitamin C:
- Apple, apricot, banana, plum, prunes, purple grapes, raisins, dates, black current, blackberries, citrus fruit, pineapple, rosehips, strawberries & guava.
- Asparagus, avocado, broccoli, brussels sprouts, artichoke, cabbage, celery, capsicum, chilli, all green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, swiss chard, rainbow chard, lettuce, dandelion leaves), garlic, mustard greens, mushroom, squash, parsley, tomato, turnip greens, raw beetroot greens, leeks, radish, tomato & watercress.
- Egg yolk
- Clam, oyster, mussel, wild caught salmon, cod & sardines.
- Grass fed meats, free range pork & organic chicken.
- Organic liver & kidney
- Brewers yeast
- Blackstrap mollasses
- Pine nut & walnut (activated)
- Quinoa, sesame, sunflower & pumpkin seed.
Blood Building Juice
Enjoy this blood building juice to replenish your iron stores.
- 1 small handful parsley
- 1 small beetroot with some stem & leaves
- 1 medium carrot or 1/2 apple
- Small handful of spinach, silver beet, or kale
- 1 tsp spirulina
- 2 dandelion leaves
- 1⁄2 cup blackberries or raspberries
- 1 tsp kelp powder
- Juice 1/2 lemon
Juice and dilute with water if desired.
Enhance Stomach Acid
Start each meal with juice 1/2 lemon, or 2 tsp-1 tbsp apple cider vinegar. This will help to enhance your stomach acid, which is crucial to absorb healthy levels of iron. Learn more about stomach acid here.
AVOID THESE FOODS:
These foods can interfere with iron absorption and are therefore important to avoid to enhance your iron levels.
- Sugar products
- Processed foods
- Caffeine (tea, coffee, chocolate, soft drinks)
- Grain products
As mentioned above, green leafy vegetables do contain loads of beneficial nutrients, such as iron, chlorophyll and Vitamin K. Green leafy vegetables do also contain a substance called oxalic acid, which has the potential to compete with iron absorption. I recommend not to rely solely on green leafy vegetables for your iron and also aim to rotate the types you include in your diet. Lightly stir-frying or steaming spinach can also reduce the oxalic acid content.
OPTIMISE YOUR IRON LEVELS
To optimise your energy, moods, muscle function among other areas of your health, have your iron levels checked every 6-12 months. If levels are low, enjoy supporting your iron levels with iron, vitamin C, B vitamin and vitamin K rich foods, along with avoiding those which compete with iron absorption. Supplementation may be required if levels are initially very low.
In the case of levels remaining low after 3 months, I would strongly recommend you look into the cause of your ongoing anaemia. If your levels are high, simply donate blood every 3 months.
What are your favourite ways to optimise iron levels? Let me know below!