By Eve Shatto Walton, RD, LDN
Mar 17, 2017: Do you often feel tired, lethargic, or run down? Is it hard to concentrate? Are you experiencing shortness of breath? The factor that might be playing a role in your sagging energy levels is lack of iron. You may be suffering from iron deficiency anemia, a condition that afflicts about one in five women of reproductive age.
Getting too much iron
Iron deficiency is a potentially serious condition that affects more than 1 billion people worldwide. Evidence shows that heart attacks may be more likely in men with higher levels of stored iron. Should people be concerned about getting too much iron? Interest in this question was sparked about a decade ago when researchers noticed that women have a low incidence of heart disease prior to menopause.
Heart disease increases dramatically after menopause when menstrual periods stop. This was always thought to be due to a drop in hormone levels, which is associated with a decrease in the level of good high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Not surprisingly, iron deficiency is less common after menopause, since iron is no longer lost in menstrual blood each month.
Some researchers say that the increase in iron stores during postmenopause may lead to an increased risk for heart disease. This may be because iron can work to make the bad low density lipoprotein (LDP) cholesterol worse by making it even more likely to clog arteries, pancreas, where it often goes undetected until midlife when iron levels reach 5 to 50 times normal amounts. Severe health problems like liver disease can result.
Early identification and treatment are the way to go. Some doctors believe almost everyone should be tested for this disorder. Most recommend getting tested if you have a family history of the disease or have any symptoms that have not been successfully explained and treated. Blood tests called serum ferritin and transferrin saturation help identify whether you are storing too much iron.
Treatment is relatively simple. It involves getting rid of excess iron by drawing blood, and avoiding iron supplements and foods highly fortified with iron.
Not getting enough iron
Iron deficiency is the most common prevalent nutrient deficiency among people. It is estimated to affect about 10% of the population in America. Pregnant women, women of childbearing age, teenage girls, and infants are at highest risk of not getting enough iron. It can lead to anemia, fatigue, irritability, headaches, and lack of energy.
To prevent iron deficiency, every effort should be made to maximise iron from food sources. A good diet will safely help decrease the risk of inadequate iron and at the same time cause the least potential damage to those at risk for iron excess. A well planned vegetarian diet provides adequate iron.
Boosting iron absorption
How do you know if you are getting enough iron? The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron is 10 mg daily for men and postmenopausal women and 15 mg for women of childbearing age. Women need more iron daily to replace the iron lost each month during menstruation. Eating a varied diet with emphasis on iron-rich foods is a good start to getting enough iron. Dried beans, dark green leafy vegetables, blackstrap molasses, bulgur, and prune juice are good vegetarian sources of iron. The body absorbs only about two to 20% of the iron available in vegetarian sources.
To increase this figure, eat a vitamin C-rich fruit or vegetable at each meal. Citrus fruit, leafy vegetables, tomatoes, and strawberries are good sources of vitamin C. Another way to promote iron absorption is to eliminate coffee and tea with meals, especially those containing significant amounts of iron. Coffee has been shown to decrease iron absorption by as much as 39% and tea by 64%. This is thought to be due to tannins and other substances that bind with the iron and make it less absorbable. This effect has been shown to occur even when coffee was consumed one hour after the meal.
Adding milk to coffee further decreases iron absorption. You can partially counteract this effect with vitamin C rich foods, but why not enjoy a glass of orange juice with your breakfast instead of a cup of coffee. If you must have your coffee, drink it at least one hour before mealtime to prevent interference with iron absorption. Cooking with iron pots can significantly increase the iron content of food. This is especially true when cooking acidic foods like tomatoes. If you are still not sure if you are getting adequate iron, have your diet evaluated by a registered dietitian.
Supplements vs. food
Iron supplements can do more harm than good, especially in men who are more likely to have a problem with iron overload than with iron deficiency. Iron supplements should be taken only with the advice of a physician in cases where iron deficiency or an increased need for iron has been diagnosed. During pregnancy low-dose iron supplements are commonly recommended because it is difficult to meet iron needs through diet alone.
Some researchers believe all supplements or products containing iron and vitamin C should come with a warning label for people at risk of iron overload. This includes multiple vitamin/mineral preparations. Iron supplements supplements can also cause imbalance of other essential nutrients like copper and zinc. The golden rule, still is that it is best to get the nutrients your body needs, including iron, from the food you eat. A well-planned vegetarian diet can provide adequate iron, minimising the risk of iron deficiency. This provides the least potential harm to those at risk for iron overload. It is still too early to tell whether limiting iron in the diet will protect against heart disease.
Opinions expressed by ThinkNaturalToday contributors are their own. None of the facts and figures mentioned in the story have been created by ThinkNaturalToday. ThinkNaturalToday is not responsible for any factual errors. This article was first published in Joyful Living magazine, sister publication of www.thinknaturaltoday.com