One in 11 Australian women gets too little iron. Too much, however, can be dangerous. Here is the scoop on this mighty mineral.
Iron is an essential part of haemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying part of your red blood cells. Iron is also found in myoglobin, which supplies oxygen to muscles. If you are deficient in iron, your blood and muscles will be low on oxygen, therefore reducing the supply of energy to every cell in your body.
How much do you need?
The recommended daily intake (RDI) for iron is 7 mg for men and 16 mg for women; pregnant and breastfeeding women should seek professional advice, and any supplementation should be supervised. The most common form of iron supplement is ferrous sulphate, but this can cause stomach upset. Other forms, such as ferrous fumarate or gluconate, may be gentler on the stomach; iron-rich herbal tonics such as Floradix are well tolerated and absorbed.
If you get too little: If your diet does not supply adequate iron, or if you lose too much - heavy periods, poor nutrition, endurance training, drugs which cause stomach bleeding and cancer are some possible causes – then you are more susceptible to illness. Less well-known culprits include parasites, colitis, ulcers, Crohn’s disease, and food allergies and intolerances, especially gluten intolerance, because it slows nutrient absorption via the small intestine.
If the situation is not remedied, then your body’s ability to produce red blood cells is reduced, resulting in iron-deficiency anaemia, a condition indicated by pallor, breathlessness, exhaustion, palpitations, and vulnerability to infection. In addition to the advice given in “Are you getting enough?” I suggest anyone who is iron-deficient adopts a low-fibre diet: fibre soaks up nutrients, meaning they can pass through the body without being absorbed.
What if you get too much?
An excess of iron causes oxidative damage in the body and increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes and autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis. An over-supply of iron can also be due to haemochromotosis, a genetic predisposition to absorb too much iron. Heavy metal chelating agents, such as kelp, spirulina and chlorophyll-based ‘superfoods’ bind excess iron and remove it from the body.
Are you getting enough?
There are two main types of iron: heme, the better absorbed type, is found in liver, beef, lamb, oysters, poultry and fish. Non-heme iron, which is not as well absorbed, is also found in these foods, as well as in dried fruit, molasses, leafy green vegetables, red wine, and supplements.
Vegetarians can experience difficulty getting enough iron from their food, but some simple tricks can make a big difference. For example, they can almost double their absorption of iron from foods by taking 500 mg of vitamin C with meals. Research shows that supplementing with vitamin A helps treat and avoid iron deficiency, as vitamin A allows the body to utilise iron stored in the liver. Cooking acidic foods in cast-iron pans increases its iron content. Caffeine, high-fibre foods and calcium supplements compromise iron absorption, so avoid them when you are eating iron-rich foods.
Herbal medicines can boost iron uptake and absorption. I like rehmannia, a Chinese herb that builds blood and repairs adrenal gland function. I combine it with other adrenal-supportive herbs like ginseng, withania, astragalus and nettle, and I use it in my clinic to treat patients who are low in iron and exhausted.
Caution: Iron supplements can interfere with many common medications, including antibiotics. Check with your doctor.