Low mood, no energy, sound familiar?…you may have low iron levels
How do I get enough iron in my diet? Can I get enough iron on a vegetarian diet? I eat meat so why are my levels low.
These are all questions that I hear a lot and it seems that our iron intake and how to get enough has been a bit of a challenge. Working it out can take some detective work but lets start with the basics.
What do we need iron for?
Iron plays some pretty important roles in our body with its main job in red blood cells where it helps to transport oxygen. Without adequate iron in our system, we simply cannot generate enough oxygen for energy production. Iron ensures that our muscles are working properly. It also helps the body convert carbohydrates into energy during exercise
We also need iron for
- brain function
- making neurotransmitters (feel good chemical messengers in the brain)
- strong immune health, thyroid and fertility
Iron isn’t made in our bodies and we need to get it from our diets and is found in both animal and plants foods. Iron from animal foods is called haem iron and is the most bioavailable source meaning we rapidly absorb it.The iron in plant foods is called non heam iron which isnt as bioavailable to our bodies and is harder for our body to absorb it.
What are the symptoms of low iron?
- shortness of breath
- muscle aches and cramps
- increased anxiety
- brain fog, poor memory and concentration
- low mood
- pale skin
- restless legs at night
- cold hands and feet
- hair loss and increased frequency of infections
Common causes of iron deficiency
Sometimes its not obvious what is causing low iron levels and its important to not self diagnose as the above symptoms could be for other reasons. But before you take a supplement its important to have your levels tested. Taking iron supplements before you are tested is not recommended and could be dangerous.
There are so many factors that could cause low iron but here are some of reasons
- Gut dysbiosis or poor gut function
- Rapid growth spurt (teenagers)
- Body cant absorb iron due to excess calcium or magnesium – iron competes with calcium and magnesium for absorption
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding
- Excessive exercise
- Not eating enough iron rich foods
- Blood loss through menstruation or fibroids, stomach ulcers
- Medications such as aspirin
- Celiac disease
How to get more iron in your diet
There is only a small amount of iron in foods and you cant assume because you eat meat you are getting enough and if you are vegetarian you cant assume you are deficient.
There are some easy ways to increase absorption.
Eat your iron foods with vitamin C. Vitamin C can boost absorption by more than 50%. So pairing your iron rich foods with foods such as tomatoes, broccoli, capsicum, spinach, berries, kiwi fruit and citrus fruits is key.
I see a lot of people not getting enough Vitamin C on a daily basis which is required for proper iron absorption. Eating fruit and some raw vegetables every day ensures you are getting adequate amounts.
Avoid consuming iron blockers when eating iron. There are certain compounds in some foods that can make it harder for your body to absorb the iron. These are tannins in coffee and tea, soy proteins and foods containing calcium such as dairy. Fibre can also reduce absorption. Consuming these foods a few hours away from your iron rich foods is a good idea.
If you don’t experience good gut health most of the time this can interfere with iron absorption. Gut issues such as low stomach acid, parasites, gut dysbiosis, stomach ulcers and gut permeability (leaky gut) are all common issues that can interfere with iron absorption.
Consuming a variety of heme and non haem sources with plenty of vitamin C foods will ensure you are optimising levels. Our bodies can only absorb so much iron at a time so spreading it out throughout the day is key.
Extra biological demands
If you are a growing teen, exercise a lot or experience heavy periods you may need to be more mindful and increase your iron intake. If you are pregnant your iron requirements are much higher.
A common symptom of undiagnosed celiac disease is low iron. Celiac disease can cause damage to the small intestine where iron is absorbed.
What foods contain iron?
The best source of iron is in animal-based foods, especially red meat and offal (such as liver). Chicken, duck, pork, turkey, shellfish, salmon and tuna also have iron.
Rich sources of non-haem iron include whole eggs (iron is in the yolk), legumes (lentils and chickpeas), dark leafy greens (such as spinach), pumpkin seeds, nuts, quinoa amaranth, broccoli, mushrooms, tofu, raw cacao or dark chocolate, barley, brown rice, oats and berries.