Iron is an absolutely essential element that our bodies need in order to function. It is the centerpiece of the hemoglobin molecule, which is a protein in our red blood cells that is responsible for bringing oxygen to every cell in our body. Without hemoglobin to transport oxygen, our cells would not be able to survive. When oxygen is bound to it, blood has a bright red color. Once the blood drops off the oxygen to a cell, it becomes a darker red color.
The drop of blood on the left contains oxygen while the one on the right does not
Iron also plays a role in making enzymes, hormones and proteins (like hemoglobin). It also plays a role in a cell’s growth and what certain kinds of cells may transform into.
Iron is located at the center of the hemoglobin molecule
Anemia is a condition where your body does not have enough red blood cells. There are several causes of anemia such as acute blood loss, cancer, problems with your spleen, vitamin B deficiencies, and genetic anemias like sickle cell anemia or thalassemia.
Red blood cells are made continuously in your bone marrow. These blood cells have a life span of around 120 days. Changing how fast or slow these cells are produced can influence whether you develop anemia.
People who have anemia tend to feel, lethargic, tired and weak. Some other symptoms of anemia include:
• Chest and or abdominal pains
• Cold or numb hands and/or feet
• Low body temperature
• Rapid or irregular heartbeat
• Shortness of breath
• Pale skin
• Black or bloody stools (from blood loss)
• Weight loss
Causes of Anemia
There can be many causes of anemia. They can range from genetic to diet or reactions to certain medications like Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s) such as Asprin, Celebrex, Motrin and Naproxen. NSAID drugs can sometimes cause bleeding in the intestinal tract, which may manifest as having blood in your stools. More often these medicines can cause very small abrasions or cuts that bleed out slowly over time and may increase your risk of developing anemia.
An enlarged spleen can also be a cause of anemia. The spleen is where blood cells are broken down. If the spleen is damaged or inflamed it can break down red blood cells too quickly, reducing the amount of red blood cells in your bloodstream.
Injuries and surgery may also cause you to lose large amounts of blood, causing you to become anemic very quickly. This quick onset can be fatal if you’re not given a blood transfusion right away. However, injuries of this magnitude are not common causes of anemia. Cancers can cause anemia by diverting blood away to cancerous cells, forcing your iron stores to become depleted.
Nutrients like vitamin B-12 and folic acid (also a B-vitamin) are needed to make red blood cells. Without nutrients like these, we may not be able to produce enough red blood cells. Those with Celiac disease may have a hard time absorbing certain minerals like iron, calcium, vitamin B-12 and vitamin D, making it more difficult for your body to produce red blood cells.
One of the most common causes of anemia happens with menstruating women. Menstruating women should be getting more iron daily compared to other healthy individuals. Women, who have conditions like celiac disease, should be especially vigilant about getting all the nutrients they need to make enough red blood cells.
Too Much Iron?
Having too much iron in your body can be just as dangerous than being anemic. A genetic mutation that causes us to accumulate too much iron is called hemachromatosis (Haemochromatosis) The best solution for this is to have you blood drawn routinely (phlebotomy) or just donate blood. Hemosiderosis is another condition where our bodies may accumulate too much iron. Our body’s ability to get rid of excess iron is very limited. Having too much iron is a common dilemma for women who have gone through menopause. It may also be an issue for men as well.
We tend to get too much iron from our diet. Processed foods, like cereals that are fortified with iron, may end up causing iron to build up in our bodies. Excess iron in our bodies can begin to act like free radicals, attacking cells and the lining of our arteries, which can lead to diseases like cancer or heart disease since it can damage DNA.
Besides our diet, there are other ways that iron can get into our bodies. Cast-iron pots can leech iron into our food causing us to get iron from foods that may not have any iron in it to begin with. Cooking with acidic foods (like tomatoes) in cast iron pots will cause more iron to leech out from the pot into your food. On the other hand, if you suffer from anemia, these pots may help boost your iron levels when you cook with them.
Alcohol can cause you to absorb more iron from your food. Having a glass of wine or a beer with your steak dinner for example will help you absorb even more of the natural iron in the meat than you would without alcohol. Women who have gone through menopause should keep an eye of how often they eat beef with alcohol. Adults who are anemic may want to consider eating a beef dinner with a glass of wine to help boost iron levels.
If your iron levels are too high one of the best ways to lower it is by donating blood. There are also drugs/supplements like IP-6 and phytic acid, which can help keep iron from being absorbed into your body, but these may not work in some people and may have some side effects. Speak with your doctor about ways you can safely lower your iron levels if they are too high.
Tannins and Iron absorption
Tannins are a type of antioxidant that are usually found in teas and some naturally darker foods. These antioxidants help give black teas their dark reddish color. When these antioxidants are present in your intestinal tract, they can prevent your body from absorbing the iron. This may be helpful or harmful depending on how high or low your iron levels are. If you are anemic or at risk for anemia, you may want to avoid drinking tea. Other foods that contain tannins are berries, raw nuts, coffee and beer. Fortunately many of these foods have little to no iron in them so if you are severely anemic avoiding these foods may help you get your iron levels back to normal.
Heme and Non-Heme Iron
Iron is normally found in two different forms: Heme and Non-Heme iron. The heme form of iron is found in meats, fish and poultry. Our bodies absorb heme iron much better than non-heme iron.
Non-heme iron is found in grains, vegetables and beans. This form of iron is also used to fortify cereals to help you get your recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of iron. However, non-heme iron easily binds with other compounds, like phytic acid, found in these foods. Once it binds with these other compounds, we can’t absorb it. It’s best to stick with foods that contain heme sources of iron like meat, fish and poultry if you are concerned about keeping your iron levels up.
Vitamin C is a great way to help boost your levels of iron if you do not eat meats, fish or poultry. Eating foods high in vitamin C with foods high in non-heme forms of iron will help boost the amount of iron you absorb.
How Much Iron?
Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for Iron
|Age||Male||Female||Pregnant||Lactating||Upper Limit (UL)|
|0 – 6 Months||0.27 mg||0.27 mg|
|7 – 12 Months||11 mg||11 mg|
|1 – 3 Years||7 mg||7 mg||40 mg|
|4 – 8 Years||10 mg||10 mg||40 mg|
|9 – 13 Years||8 mg||8 mg||40 mg|
|14 – 18 Years||11 mg||15 mg||27 mg||10 mg||45 mg|
|19 – 50 years||8 mg||18 mg||27 mg||9 mg||45 mg|
|51+ Years||8 mg||8 mg||45 mg|
Testing Iron Levels
The test for iron levels is called a ferritin test. Ferritin is a protein in your body that stores iron. The normal range of ferritin is 20-80 ng/ml. If you are below 20 ng/ml then you are anemic. If you are above 80 ng/ml, then you have too much iron. High ferritin levels can lead to conditions like liver damage, liver cancer, Type-1 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and hepatitis C.
Foods High in Iron
Spleen is very high in heme iron. It has just under 40 mg of iron in a 3 oz serving.
Liver from ducks and geese are great sources of iron. 1 ounce of liver contains about 8 mg of the heme form of iron. Duck liver is also very high in folate and vitamin B-12. It contains 207 mcg of folate (about 52% of the daily value for adults) and 15.1 mcg of vitamin B-12 (250% of the daily value for adults). It also has over 11,000 IU’s of vitamin A (over 220% of the daily value for adults). It’s also a great source of copper and selenium.
Foods Containing Phytic Acid
Breads and cereals contain the non heme form of iron. 1 slice of bread contains around 1-2 mg of iron, while cereals may have anywhere from 6 mg to 16 mg of non-heme iron per serving (3/4 of a cup) depending on how much the manufacturers fortified the cereal. The phytic acid in these foods, however, will reduce the amount of iron you will ultimately absorb.
Beans, particularly soybeans and soybean based foods like natto, are great sources of iron. They contain anywhere from 10 to 16 mg of iron per serving. However, beans also contain phytic acid. To help get around this, soak the beans for about 3 hours, in water, that’s 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This will get rid of about half of the phytic acid in the beans. Soaking it for longer and or soaking it in hotter temperatures will not take out more of the phytic acid.
Certain spices can be great sources of iron. However, as healthy as they are, they contain compounds that block you from absorbing some of their iron.
1 tablespoon of cumin seeds has 4 mg of non-heme iron. However, cumin also contains compounds that can block the absorption of some of the iron it contains.
1 tablespoon of dried thyme has 3.1 g of non-heme iron.
Caffeinated drinks like coffee, tea and cocoa, can block the absorption of non heme iron. Drinking caffeinated beverages with foods that contain non heme iron like grains, fruits and vegetables, will reduce the amount of iron you absorb. When combined with foods that contain phytic acid, you may end up absorbing much less iron than you think.
Vegans and Vegetarians
Vegans and vegetarians may have more difficulty absorbing enough iron to keep their levels normal since eating food sources of heme iron may not be an option. In this case, you may want to try having some alcohol with your dinner, cook in cast iron pots, or both. Soaking beans in warm water for a few hours may also help get rid of a significant amount of phytic acid so you can absorb more of iron present in the food. Avoid caffeine a couple of hours before eating foods that are high in iron.
If you suffer from anemia, there are supplements you can take to help you get your iron levels back up to normal. Iron can come in several forms both as a supplement and in fortified foods. A couple of the safer forms of iron to take as a supplement are carbonyl iron and iron gluconate. It’s important to note that you should avoid iron supplements unless you have cleared it with your doctor first. It is very easy to get overdose on iron from supplements.