How to Overcome Iron Deficiency?

iron deficiency

Unless one suffers from serious implications of iron deficiency, chances are that the most important essential mineral required in our body is not taken seriously. If you are feeling exhausted lately, or you have started getting winded just after a short jog even though you are physically fit, you could be iron deficient. The role and importance of this mineral cannot be underestimated, primarily because its deficiency is not only unpleasant but dangerous. Read on to know about iron deficiency and what can you do to fight it off!

The human body reuses or conserves approximately 90% of its iron every day. The remaining 10% is eliminated. It is this 10% that must be replenished otherwise the body risks developing an iron deficiency. Know about the role of iron in the human body here!

Several situations can lead to iron deficiency. An iron deficiency can result from a significant loss of blood either from an injury or due to menstrual bleeding. However, the most common reason behind an iron deficiency is the diet. Many people do not consume adequate quantities of iron-rich foods.

What Are The Symptoms Of Iron Deficiency?

Some of the symptoms of iron deficiency are:

  • Some common iron deficiency symptoms include severe generalized fatigue, body weakness, headaches, dizziness, and heart palpitations. It can also affect body metabolism.
  • People suffering from iron deficiency cannot perform normal functions in an efficient way. Furthermore, women and children need more iron than men as anemia strikes them particularly hard.
  • Progressive skin ailments that cause brittleness of nails and extra smoothness in the tongue area can occur due to severe iron deficiency. 
  • The enzymatic processes that require iron and protein will not function properly for iron deficient individuals causing a variety of medical complications down the line.
anaemia symptoms
  • Iron-deficiency anemia (the most common form of anemia) is a condition with a reduced number of red blood cells (RBCs) caused due to too low iron. Without sufficient iron, our body can’t produce enough hemoglobin (found in RBCs) to efficiently carry oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues. This may result in weakness, tiredness, and irritability.

Read more about some of the common discomforts during pregnancy!

So How Can One Overcome Iron Deficiency?

In most cases, you can tackle it by intaking a diet rich in iron. Any supplementation should be taken under a physician’s guidance, as excess iron can be harmful. Dietary iron comes in two forms – heme iron (iron that comes bound to heme proteins) and non-heme iron (iron not bound to heme proteins). Heme iron comes from hemoglobin and is thus present in animal proteins such as red meats, fish, seafood and poultry (these contain both heme and non-heme iron). Our body absorbs the most iron from the heme sources. Good sources of heme iron are organ meats such as liver, heart, and kidneys, as well as lean beef, fish, seafood, sardines, poultry, and anchovies. 

iron rich foods

Non-heme iron is present in plant-based foods such as grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Good sources of non-heme iron are spinach, cauliflower, oat bran, apricots, kidney beans, hazelnuts, almonds, cashews,  whole grains, eggs, and soy products. Most of the dietary iron is non-heme and it is this form which is added to iron-enriched and iron-fortified foods.

The main difference between the two types of iron is in their rate of absorption. Our body is able to absorb heme iron better than non-heme iron. However, we can improve the absorption of non-heme iron by choosing the right food combinations.

Keep The Below Foods In Mind For Absorption Of Dietary Iron

Dietary iron gets absorbed into the body mainly in the upper part of our small intestines. We can increase the absorption of iron by limiting or avoiding foods in the diet that inhibit iron absorption and incorporating foods that promote iron absorption.

Substances that inhibit iron absorption are:

Calcium

Calcium-Rich-Diet

Calcium is the only substance that interferes with the absorption of both heme and non-heme iron. Foods such as milk and dairy products, sardines, salmon, tofu, broccoli, almonds, and figs contain calcium. One should avoid consuming calcium-rich foods or drinks with meals containing iron-rich foods. Although 50mg or less of calcium has little to no effect on iron absorption, calcium in amounts 300-600mg inhibits the absorption of both types of iron similarly. To put this in perspective, a cup of skimmed milk contains about 300mg of calcium. 

Eggs

Eggs contain a phosphoprotein called phosvitin which inhibits the absorption of iron. It has iron binding properties which may be responsible for the low bioavailability of iron from eggs.

Oxalates

Oxalates are compounds obtained from oxalic acid. These are present in foods such as chocolate, tea, spinach, kale, beets, nuts, wheat bran, rhubarb, strawberries and herbs such as oregano, basil, and parsley. The presence of oxalates in spinach is the reason that our body is unable to absorb its iron.

Polyphenols

Polyphenols are major inhibitors of iron absorption. It includes chlorogenic acid found in cocoa, coffee and some herbs. Phenolic acid (a type of polyphenol) found in apples, peppermint, and some herbal teas, and tannins found in black teas, coffee, cocoa, spices, walnuts, and fruits (such as blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and apples) all have the ability to inhibit iron absorption.

Coffee is particularly high in both tannins and chlorogenic acid; one cup of certain types of coffee can inhibit iron absorption by about 60%. Do not consume these foods within two hours before and after your main iron-rich meal.

Phytate

Phytate compounds are present in soy protein and dietary fiber. Even low levels of phytate (about 5% of the amounts in whole grain flours) have a strong inhibitory effect on iron bioavailability. Walnuts, almonds, sesame, dried beans, lentils, peas, and whole grains contain phytates. Phytates can reduce the body’s iron absorption by 50 – 65%.

Medications

Lastly, medications that reduce the amount of stomach acid like antacids or proton pump inhibitors may lead to low levels or a complete absence of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which impairs iron absorption.

On the other hand, there are substances which increase iron absorption:

Vitamin C

orange

You can increase the absorption rates of non-heme iron by including vitamin C or ascorbic acid. When your meal contains both non-heme iron and vitamin C, the ascorbic acid forms a complex with iron and chemically modifies it into a form that your body can absorb more readily. In studies about effects of ascorbic acid on iron absorption, 100mg of ascorbic acid increased iron absorption from a specific meal by 4.14 times. Vitamin C occurs naturally in most vegetables and fruits, particularly citrus fruits. Red peppers, broccoli, grapefruits, strawberries, and oranges are among the richest sources of vitamin C.

Alcohol

Alcohol can enhance the absorption of iron, however, no one is encouraged to drink alcohol for improving one’s iron status. Moderate consumption of alcohol has health benefits but abusive drinking, especially when combined with high body iron levels increases the risk of liver damage, liver cancer, and blood cell production. Moderate consumption is defined as two standard drinks per day for adult males and one drink per day for adult females or those above 65.

Beta-Carotene

carrots

Beta-carotene enables the body to produce vitamin A. In studies of the effects of vitamin A and beta-carotene on iron absorption, vitamin A did not significantly increase iron absorption under the experimental conditions. However, beta-carotene significantly improved the absorption of the mineral. Moreover, in the presence of phytates or tannic acid, beta-carotene generally overcame the inhibitory effects of both these compounds depending on their concentrations. Rich sources of beta-carotene are carrots, sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens, apricots, broccoli, cantaloupe, romaine lettuce, red and yellow peppers, peas, and yellow squash.

Hydrochloric Acid

Hydrochloric acid (HCl) present in the stomach, frees up nutrients including iron from foods for their proper absorption.

Heme Foods

Heme foods also boost the absorption of non-heme iron, especially red meat. Beef and lamb contain significantly higher amounts of heme as compared to chicken or pork. 1g of meat (c. 20% protein) has an enhancing effect on non-heme iron absorption equivalent to that of 1mg of ascorbic acid.  So, it is good to combine non-heme iron foods with food from the meat, fish, and poultry group. Select lean cuts of meat, such as skinless boneless turkey or chicken breasts. This will help you absorb iron without significantly increasing your saturated fat intake.

Acidic Foods

Combine acidic foods with foods that contain non-heme iron to maximize iron absorption. Acids help in changing the form of iron from non-absorbable ferric iron to the more absorbable ferrous iron. Consume non-heme foods along with vinegar (like balsamic or apple cider) or acidic fruit juices (like orange, lime or lemon juice). For e.g., toss a lentil salad with a lemon and herb dressing, or use lime juice as a garnish for a black bean soup.

Sugar

A study conducted with more than 600 elderly patients concluded that those who took supplemental iron along with fruits had up to 3 times higher iron stores. However, no one is encouraged to consume sugar to improve iron absorption as too much of it can lead to disorders like obesity and diabetes. Refined white sugar has no nutritional value; so eating fruits or adding honey or black-strap molasses to foods such as cereals can promote iron absorption.

Can Excess Iron Be Unhealthy As Well?

A healthy amount of iron consumption is critical for the proper functioning of the brain, muscles, and red blood cells. Know about the daily allowance of iron here! 

However, an excess of anything including iron is bad. Our body cannot metabolize high doses of iron. The therapeutic dose for iron deficiency anemia is 3-6 mg/kg/day. Toxicity occurs at doses above 20 mg/kg of elemental iron. Ingestions of more than 60 mg/kg of elemental iron are severely toxic. 

Excess iron can irritate the lining of your gastrointestinal tract and also cause other complications. The initial signs of iron poisoning include nausea and abdominal pain. Vomiting of blood can also occur. Iron poisoning can also lead to diarrhoea and dehydration. Excess iron can sometimes cause stools to turn black and bloody. 

Further complications can develop within 48 hours of the overdose. Some of the symptoms are dizziness, low blood pressure, a fast or weak pulse, headache, fever, shortness of breath and fluid in the lungs, a greyish or bluish color in the skin and seizures.

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