Know your iron levels
Iron-deficiency can be a major health issue since iron is vital for transporting oxygen in the blood and muscle. It is also involved in in energy production and replication in cells. Iron deficiency has severe consequences, including anemia and impaired cognitive function!
But excess iron is also a problem. The body only requires a small amount of iron to function properly, and excess iron can build up and cause oxidative stress in organs. Iron overload has been associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, cancer, asthma, psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease, hypothyroidism, liver disease, gout, epilepsy, impotence, infertility, osteoporosis, and osteoarthritis.
Pretty big scary list, so in this post I wanted to discuss how to keep our iron levels healthy naturally.
Iron is everywhere!
Fortification is now days very common to avoid mass nutrient deficiencies. Some of the most commonly consumed cereals are fortified and the amount of iron they contain per cup can be pretty high depending on the product. For example in a cup (around 50grams) you can find
- Special K: 8.7 mg/cup
- Cheerios: 9.0 mg/cup
- Fiber one Honey cluster: 16 mg/cup
If you are used to eat cereal every morning for breakfast you can be are dangerously close to the upper limit for iron intake. And you need to think that rice, bread, pasta are also fortified with iron so you most probably are getting more than you need! And this type of iron is unfortunately not absorbable as it is non-heme iron (plant based iron).
Moreover, most foods fortified with iron, like cereal grains, are also rich in phytates, which further prevent iron absorption. Even low levels of phytate (about 5% of the amounts in cereal and grains) can reduce iron absorption by 50-65%. But non-absorption may be just as detrimental as absorption since unabsorbed iron causes many issues to our gut.
- Iron fortification is many products such as cereals can lead to have excess iron.
- Non-absorbed iron can causes many gut issues.
What should your levels be
The RDA for iron is about 8 milligrams of iron per day, while premenopausal women need 18 milligrams per day. Increasing the amount to more than 40 milligrams per day is toxic, so you should always check your iron status when doing your blood test. A standard iron panel includes usually 3 markers:
- Serum iron: the amount of iron circulating in the blood bound to transferrin, the transport protein
- Ferritin: the long-term storage of iron. This is the most sensitive marker of iron deficiency.
- TIBC: total iron binding capacity, an indirect measure of transferrin
How to keep your iron levels healthy
Let’s look at some practises of keeping your iron levels healthy in what we consider a prioritzed order
Prefer heme iron
Consume foods that are high in bioavailable heme iron, like clams, oysters, liver, mussels, and beef. Aim to eat with every meal t a good amount of animal protein (30+ grams) and try to make a habit of having some beef live on the side. It can make all the difference! Healthy choices of non-heme iron, are thyme, parsley, pumpkin seeds, spinach, and tomatoes.
Have an acid stomach
The acidic environment of the stomach is necessary so that iron can be absorbed in the small intestine. Avoid medications that inhibit stomach acid production, and drink daily Apple Cider Vinegar before each meal. You can also consider supplementing with Betaine HCl.
Eat Prebiotics foods
Eat prebiotic foods or take a prebiotic supplement, to enhance iron absorption and reduce the detrimental effects of unabsorbed iron on the gut microbiota.
Check your gut
Gut inflammation leads to iron deficiency. Celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and irritable bowel syndrome are all associated with reduced iron absorption.To restore iron absorption, it is crucial to remove inflammatory foods from your diet, identify food intolerances, and treat the root cause. Start Nutrition Series 3 to learn how to balance your gut.
Change your cookware
Opt for stainless steel or ceramic cookware over cast iron and by tefal, as they have increased levels of iron
Blood donation significantly reduces iron levels but is a healthy process to stimulate creation of new blood cells.
I believe that by following the above supplementation is not needed and you can turn around a deficient status naturally in a period of 3-6 months. If you must supplement, use heme iron along with Vitamin C to aid absorption. Heme iron can be found in supplements like desiccated grass-fed beef which will be free of artificial additives. See Heart&Soil.
- There are many strategies to manage your iron level, before supplementing.
- Eat a healthy diet will keep your iron levels in check.
If you want to increase or decrease your iron levels you should be aware of the below.
- Vitamin C: just 100 mg has been shown to increase iron absorption by 4 fold.
- Althoug not recommended marinating your steak in a bit of honey or blackstrap molasses will increase iron absorption. Sugar should be avoided..
- Egg yolks contain phosvitin, which inhibits iron absorption
- Oxalates found commonly in spinach, beets, nuts, kale, chocolate, tea, berries, oregano, parsley, and basil which binds to iron and reduces its absorption. This is one of the reasons plant-based iron sources such as spinash are not really helpful in getting the iron we need.
- Phytates are particularly high in cereals and whole grains, as well as soy, beans, lentils, peas, almonds, walnuts, and sesame. Even low levels of phytates will reduce iron absorption significantly.
- Polyphenols found in cocoa, coffee, teas, walnuts, apples, berries, and some spices. Coffee and tea have been shown to inhibit iron absorption by up to 90 percent and should be consumed away from meals when it comes to iron absorption.
- Calcium inhibits both heme and non-heme absorption, so avoid dairy consumption if you want to increase iron.
- Higher or lower level of iron can have significant impacts on health.
- Test you iron levels so you can manage your diet accordingly.
- Heme iron from animal sources is more bio-available fom non-heme iron coming from plant sources.
- Eating a health keto diet, will keep your iron at the right level, by ensuring you are getting iron from animal sources and reducing anti-nutrients which block iron absorption.