During the time I spent working at a health food and supplement store, I noticed certain questions I would get asked over and over. One of those questions was "what should I do if I have low iron?" Another was "is there something I can take to boost my iron levels that won't give me awful side effects?" I noticed there were a lot of people who had been tested by their doctors and reported to have low hemoglobin (the iron-containing protein in the blood that carries iron and oxygen to cells), hematocrit (the percentage of red blood cells in the blood), and ferritin (the amount of iron stored in the body). Note: It's crucial to test to make sure you are truly iron deficient and not deficient in folate, B12, or B6 and not suffering from anemia of chronic disease as taking in more iron in these cases could be problematic. The solution they were given was usually a synthetic iron supplement and more often than not, it left them with side effects; mainly constipation, nausea, and an upset stomach. The good news I would provide is that there are healthier whole food based iron supplements that don't give the negative side effects they were experiencing, and there are also simple dietary strategies to boost iron in the body naturally.
Since iron plays an important role in transporting oxygen from your lungs throughout the body and in maintaining healthy hair, skin, and nails, insufficient amounts can cause:
Shortness of breath
Fast or irregular heartbeat
Tingling in the legs
Cold hands and feet
Brittle hair and nails
Decreased immune function
Iron deficiency appears more frequently in women than men, especially in women of childbearing age. Most women should be aiming to consume 18mg of iron daily, whereas men only need around 8mg daily. It's important to incorporate iron rich foods in your diet, but it's also important to make sure you are digesting well and assimilating the nutrients from your food. I recommend testing your ferritin at least once per year to see where you stand and make adjustments accordingly.
If you find yourself with a true iron deficiency, there are a few diet and lifestyle hacks you can experiment with to increase your iron intake and absorption:
Try cooking with cast iron pans - Cooking food in cast iron pans has been a proven way to increase dietary iron intake. I have seen this simple technique boost iron levels into the normal range for a number of people in my practice
Consume more iron rich foods - Before I tell you my most recommended iron rich foods, I want to emphasize there is a difference between plant-based sources of iron and animal-based sources of iron. Iron from plant sources is in a form called non-heme iron and is converted in our bodies very poorly into the more bioavailable form. Iron from animal sources are in a form called heme iron which is a more bioavailable form. This is why animal sources of iron are more optimal than plant sources. My top food sources of iron are:
- Organic, pastured liver. 3oz = 4.05mg heme iron. High quality is key. Make sure if it's cow or lamb that the animals were grass-fed and if it's chicken that they were free range. If you're making a face that looks disgusted as you read this, I highly recommend you learn about the benefits of liver, why it is a superfood, and the traditional consumption of it. If after learning more about it you are still opposed to consuming it, then you can try supplementing with dessicated liver capsules
- Grass-fed beef. 214g = 4mg heme iron. Again, quality is key. Grain-fed meat is a completely different food from grass-fed meat.
- Spirulina. 1oz = 8mg non heme iron. This is a blue-green algae which is a plant-based nutrition powerhouse but keep in mind that it contains non heme iron rather than heme iron
- Blackstrap molasses. 1tbsp = 3.5mg non heme iron. This food is a good plant-based source of minerals but should be used in moderation due to its higher sugar content. Check out my iron boosting tea recipe using blackstrap molasses here.
Consume iron rich foods with Vitamin C rich foods and away from Calcium and Tannin rich foods - Vitamin C will enhance the absorption of iron (which is often why doctors would recommend you take your iron pill with a glass of orange juice). Adding red bell peppers to your steak salad would be a good food combo. Calcium and tannins will block the absorption of iron so make sure you are eating your iron rich foods away from things like coffee, teas, and any dairy or leafy greens rich in calcium like kale.
Use a probiotic and digestive enzyme - This will enhance the way you are digesting and assimilating the nutrients from your food, and that includes iron. Eating food sources of probiotics such as sauerkraut and kimchi will aid digestion as well. A medical study out of Stanford showed that a probiotic supplement increases B vitamins and iron levels in the body so it's worthwhile to consider if you have any digestive issues.
Now I’d love to hear from you. Have you experienced any of these signs or symptoms of an iron deficiency? What have you tried implementing to help? Share and let me know!