Posted by Dr. Ian Bier on Jan 15, 2020 6:32:33 PM
Did you know that iron deficiency is the most common nutrient disorder in the world? Managing proper iron levels is important to maintaining a healthy body and lifestyle, but many people with an iron deficiency don’t realize anything’s wrong.
Knowing what to do when your iron levels are low can be challenging, but supplement options can provide relief and help improve your overall health. Taking the time to learn what’s out there and what supplement would be best for you is of utmost importance.
About two-thirds of your body’s iron is sequestered in red blood cells called hemoglobin. Hemoglobin utilizes iron to bind oxygen and transfer it from your lungs to the rest of your body. Iron is also important in keeping your skin, hair, and nails healthy and your brain and immune system functioning properly.1
Having proper iron levels is important, as too much or too little iron can lead to major health risks. For example, iron-deficient anemia can lead to not enough oxygen being transferred to the body, causing the heart to pump more and potentially leading to a rapid or irregular heartbeat. For women who are pregnant, an iron deficiency can have serious outcomes and can lead to premature birth or low birth weight.2
Having too much iron is more uncommon and can occur in those who overdose on iron supplements or suffer from the genetic disorder hemochromatosis, which results in an over absorption of iron. An overdose or a slow, cumulative build-up of iron in the body will cause major damage to the organs where normal levels of iron are stored, such as the liver, pancreas, and heart.3
The stored version of iron is called ferritin, and our body is always balancing out the levels of ferritin in storage to the iron that’s release into circulation via proteins. Chronic stress can cause a major disturbance to this delicate balance, and over time, it can lead to a condition called anemia of inflammation (AI).
With AI, the body has decided that it’s too dangerous to have the iron in circulation because it might provide food for bad bacteria or the inflammatory response that utilizes iron to grow and develop. In either case, symptoms of anemia—such as pale skin, weakness, fatigue, brain fog, and headaches—may appear if the cause is improperly diagnosed by a physician.4
Humans can consume iron in the form of food and supplements. Animal products such as chicken or beef contain mostly heme iron, while plant foods such as lentils, spinach, and broccoli provide us with non-heme iron. The bioavailability of iron from any food source is hard to pinpoint because it relies on so many changing variables, such as how much iron you already have, what foods you consume with your iron, the form of the iron you consume, and your level of health.
Plants, on the other hand, generally have lower iron bioavailability than animal sources. The iron bioavailability of food also becomes tricky to track since cooking, enhancers (such as acids), and inhibitors (such as polyphenols and calcium) can either reduce or increase the bioavailability of iron at the time of consumption.5
Since iron is a mineral, it is naturally charged and must be combined with an ion to stabilize it, unlike vitamin C or B12, which can exist on their own. The strength of the chemical bonds formed corresponds directly to the ability of the combined molecules to break down.
The most common form of iron you’ll find at your local store is ferrous sulfate (FS). FS is a cheap, moderately-bioavailable form that combines iron and sulfate. The most common complaint about FS as a supplement is the gastrointestinal irritation and constipation that it can cause in high doses. However, taking FS with enhancers such as orange juice or with a small snack can lessen any potential stomach irritation.6
For those with sensitive stomachs, iron bisglycinate is a chelated form of iron that combines an iron molecule with two glycine molecules. The ability of iron bisglycinate to break down faster is due to the weaker bonds between the molecules that hold it together, which makes this soluble yet stable compound significantly gentler on the stomach than FS.
Iron bisglycinate has also shown similar bioavailability to FS, suggesting that it can be a great option for individuals who are having digestive issues or sensitivities. While it is not as commonly found on pharmacy shelves, speaking with your physician can help guide you to a high-quality option.
There are a few foods and drugs that you should avoid, as they are known to impair iron absorption. These foods and drugs include:7
Incorporating iron supplements into your diet can help if you are on a vegan or vegetarian diet, since you are significantly reducing your heme iron consumption. Women who are menstruating or pregnant are also more susceptible to experience iron deficiency, although this deficiency can affect anyone depending on their lifestyle and health. Prior to going to the store to purchase a supplement over the counter, it’s important to know which supplement is right for you.
It’s important to keep iron levels balanced at every stage of your life, especially for women. If you find that you need to supplement with iron, it may be worth your while to consider iron bisglycinate, as the side effects of the most common iron supplement, FS, may be too severe. When taken properly and as advised by a physician, effective iron supplementation can help relieve symptoms of iron deficiency and improve overall health and wellness.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
By Ian D. Bier, ND, PhD, LAc, FABNO
1 “What You Need To Know About Iron Supplements - WebMD.” 2011. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/features/iron-supplements#1. Accessed December 3, 2019.
2 “Iron Deficiency Anemia - Healthline.” 2017. https://www.healthline.com/health/iron-deficiency-anemia#complications. Accessed December 3, 2019.
3 “Hemochromatosis - Mayo Clinic.” 2018. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hemochromatosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20351443. Accessed December 3, 2019.
4 “Anemia of Inflammation - NCBI.” 2015. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4115203/. Accessed December 3, 2019.
5 “Iron Bioavailability and Dietary Reference Values - AJCN.” 2010. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/91/5/1461S/4597424. Accessed December 3, 2019.
6 “I Need More Iron - Medium.” 2015. https://medium.com/@learngirl/iron-supplements-explained-61c1ce570313. Accessed December 3, 2019.
7 “A Physician’s Guide To Oral Iron - SABM.” 2018. https://www.sabm.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/2A2-PhysiciansGuideOralIron.pdf. Accessed December 3, 2019.
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