How much iron should you be consuming per day? What are the benefits of iron? Are you iron deficient?
Did you know that One-quarter of the world’s population is anemic, meaning they don’t get enough iron to produce the red blood cells and oxygen-carrying hemoglobin needed to nourish their myriad cells?
Iron is a vital mineral for transporting oxygen throughout the body. The substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body is called haemoglobin, and haemoglobin consists of approximately two thirds of the iron in the body. If there is not enough iron, the body struggles to effectively transport oxygen leaving you feeling fatigued, both physically and mentally.
Keeping red blood cells healthy is only part of what iron does; it also plays a role in converting blood sugar to energy, allowing muscles to work at their optimum and reduce recovery times after intense exercise.
Iron is important in producing new and healthy cells, keeping hair, nails and skin healthy, as well as helping the immune system fight off infection.
Natural sources of iron
It is recommended that the average adult male requires 8.7 mg per day, while adult women need 14.8 mg. (This is often largely overlooked) Iron is naturally available in many foods, particularly red meat, pulses and dark green leafy vegetables.
Iron content (mg)
Pumpkin seeds, 50g
Spinach, 100g Popeye!
Pine nuts, 50g
Iron deficiency is extremely common, particularly amongst women during their monthly cycle. Those on kidney dialysis, who have Coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease or who exercise intensely may also be more prone to iron deficiency.
Iron deficiency is called anaemia, with initial symptoms of fatigue, pale skin and dizziness. If you lower the skin just below the eyes, and the skin lining is red, this is usually a sign of healthy red blood cells, while a pale tone can indicate iron deficiency, where shortness of breath, cold hands and feet, and cracking at the corners of the mouth can develop. A quickened heartbeat, restless leg syndrome and a tendency to having headaches can also be indicators of iron deficiency.
5 Warning Signs That Your Iron Levels May Be Too Low
You're tired all the time, and you can't seem to think clearly.
Feeling run down is one of the most common signs that your iron levels are too low––remember, iron helps your red blood cells move oxygen around, so if you don't have enough of it, your cells aren't getting the fuel they need to function properly. This can translate into that whole-body, "can't shake it even after a couple of days in bed" type of tired.
Similarly, if you find yourself constantly struggling to focus, or slipping up when it comes to remembering common words, it could be that you're experiencing brain fogrelated to low iron levels. Too little iron can mean that your brain isn't getting the oxygen it needs, or that certain key neurotransmitters aren't being produced because your enzymes don't have the iron they need to make them.
Something strange is going on with your skin, hair, and nails.
Ever wonder why red blood cells are red? It's because of the iron they contain. Just like the iron in rust (or iron oxide) gives it its characteristic color, the iron in your red blood cells gives them that dark red color. If you don't have enough iron, the cells become smaller and paler, which can leave your skinlooking washed out or yellowish. This can be hard to see if you're already naturally pale, so try looking at your tongue for a better indicator: if it's paler than normal, it could be that you're not getting enough iron.
Plus, if your hair and nails aren't getting the oxygen they need to grow, they can start to become brittle and weak. While it's natural to lose some hair every day, if you're losing a lot and it's not growing back, chances are your iron levels are out of whack. Similarly, if your nails are always breaking or they look flat or indented, it’s a good idea to take a look at your iron status.
Your immune system is out of whack.
Iron plays a key role in supporting the functioning of your immune system, so if you seem to catch every little thing that goes around, it could be that your iron levels are too low (the level of iron in your body has an effect on how your cells respond to possible threats).
There's also a direct connection between your iron levels and the health of your gut microbiome: the more in balance your microbiome is, the better you're able to absorb iron. Similarly, too high or too low iron levels can encourage the growth of undesirable bacteria, which can then lead to a reduction in your iron absorption. And of course, your gut microbiome is intricately linked to your immune system, so it's well worth looking into both the health of your microbiome and your iron levels as a preventative measure, even if you're feeling fine right now.
Your hormones are all over the place.
Along with its role in enzyme reactions, iron also helps the body maintain balanced hormone levels––remember, it's a key player in the production of many important neurotransmitters, including GABA (which helps you regulate your response to stress), and thyroid hormones, among others. Be sure to consider your iron levels if you're experiencing changes in your weight, blemishes on your skin, or mood swings, as these are all common occurrences when your hormones become unbalanced.
You can't get enough ice.
This might sound like a weird one, but it's true: if your iron levels are too low, you're likely to start craving non-food things you normally wouldn't eat, including ice, dried pasta, chalk, or even dirt! Researchers aren't entirely sure why this happens, but it's really common in those with iron deficiency, (So don’t worry you haven’t lost the plot!) so if those ice cubes start looking extra tasty, it's a good bet that there's something going on with your iron.
How to Normalize Your Iron Levels
Get tested by a doctor to see where things stand.
Before you start reaching for the iron supplements, get in touch with your doctor to make sure that you actually have an iron deficiency. Having too much iron in your body can be just as dangerous as having too little, so you don't want to accidentally over-supplement. Your doctor will likely recommend a serum ferritin test, which is a way of seeing how much ferritin (an iron-containing protein) is in your blood.
Increase your dietary iron and match foods.
If it does turn out that your iron levels are too low, try to fix the problem with changes in diet before looking for a supplement. While iron supplements can be very effective, they're often made with a type of iron that's not natural for the body. And since your body has a limited capacity for excreting iron, this can mean that you end up with a build up of this less-than-ideal iron, especially if you're overdoing it with supplements.
Instead, increase your intake of iron-rich foods. Red meat, organ meats, poultry, fish, and shellfish are all good sources of heme iron (remember, that's the one that's easiest for your body to absorb), and lentils, egg yolks, sesame seeds (hello, tahini!), white beans, chickpeas, and blackstrap molasses all contain non-heme iron.
To get the best results, try food matching. Certain foods, when paired together, increase the amount of iron your body absorbs: for instance, when you eat foods that contain non-heme iron with foods that contain heme iron, your body is better able to absorb the non-heme iron than it would if you ate those foods on their own.
Similarly, vitamin C increases the amount of iron your body absorbs from food, so consider eating iron-rich foods along with citrus fruits or dark green veggies, which tend to be good sources of vitamin C. Of course, the opposite applies too, so do what you can to avoid substances that limit your iron absorption, particularly supplements that contain calcium (including antacids) and zinc.
Use supplements appropriately.
Sometimes it's impossible to get the amount of dietary iron you need from the foods you eat; in which case a supplement can help. Do your research and work with your doctor to find the best iron supplement for your particular health needs that's not going to flood your system with too much iron––remember, having too much iron in your body is just as bad as having too little, and it's relatively easy to accidentally end up with too much if you're taking a high-dose supplement.
You may also want to consider taking other supplements that can help your body absorb the iron it's already getting, like vitamin C or a premium probiotic like PRO-15, which contains S. thermophilus, a specific bacterial strain that increases your body's iron absorption.
Iron plays such a critical role in your health that it's well worth keeping an eye on your iron levels, whether you're currently seeing any of these five signs or not. Now that you know what to be on the lookout for, make your nutritional health something you regularly check in on––and you might just find that those lingering issues resolve themselves with a little shift in diet.
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