Are you feeling too exhausted to get off the couch? Catching every cold that’s going around? It could be iron deficiency. Women are more likely to be low in iron during their reproductive years, but don’t rule out the troubles of a deficiency if you are older or of the opposite sex. Iron deficiency can affect men or women of any age.
Iron is required to produce hemoglobin in our red blood cells. Red blood cells, via hemoglobin, carry oxygen through your cells to every part of your body and organ systems. If your blood lacks enough healthy red blood cells or hemoglobin, a condition called anemia can result. Anemia affects over 3 million Americans.
If your blood cells are not healthy, your body can’t produce enough oxygen. And when your tissues, muscles and organs, including your heart, do not receive a sufficient amount of oxygen, it will cause your body to work twice as hard. The reduced oxygen also causes you to feel tired, weak, faint, dizzy and short of breath. You may even get headaches or heart palpitations. Iron is also needed to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the fuel for each cell. If the body is low on fuel, it won’t run optimally. Iron is also needed for a variety of enzymes involved in proper brain, liver, and thyroid function; synthesis of hormones such as estrogen and progesterone; and heart health.
Your body relies on a protein called “ferritin” to regulate your blood levels of iron. Ferritin will help store iron in the blood and release iron if concentrations are low. Your body continually loses iron through normal processes such as urination, defecation, sweating, and sloughing off skin cells. Conditions such as menstruation, pregnancy, cancer, surgery, bowel disorders (diverticulitis, polys, IBC, Crohns, ulcerative colitis), stomach disorders and uterine fibroids may also affect your iron levels.
Symptoms of iron deficiency include:
• Dark circles under the eyes
• Fatigue and muscle weakness
• Increased infections
• Shortness of breath
• Heart palpitations
• Poor concentration
• Low, listless mood
• Cold hands and feet
• Chest pain during exercise
• Restless legs
Increasing iron levels can be done with food and/or through supplements. There are two types of iron found in food: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is the most absorbable form of iron and is found in meats, poultry and fish.
Good sources of non-heme iron are dried fruits, dark green leafy vegetables, legumes and whole grains. To boost absorption of non-heme iron in foods, combine these foods with vitamin C-rich foods, such as citrus fruit, berries, melons, peppers and tomatoes. Cooking with cast-iron cookware can also increase the amount of non-heme iron in foods.
If you are diagnosed with anemia, dietary measures alone are often not enough to treat iron deficiency anemia, therefore supplements play a vital role in managing this condition. There are many types of iron, from tablets to liquids, and one may be better for you than another.
How well your body absorbs iron depends on the source of iron you consume and how healthy your gut is (you need a healthy gut to absorb iron). The most common iron supplement recommended is “ferrous iron” because it is cheaper, provides a high dose of iron per tablet, and gets absorbed by the body quicker. However, it does have potential side effects such as nausea, bloating, heartburn, abdominal pain, constipation, and black/tarry stools. Constipation associated with taking “ferrous iron” is related to the imbalance of gut microbes that is caused by this particular form of iron. An imbalance in your gut microbes can slow down peristalsis (the movement of feces through the colon), which results in feces staying in the colon longer. This results in more water being absorbed by the colon (causing dryer feces), further resulting in constipation.
If you have trouble with constipation, consider a plant-based iron. MegaFood Blood Builder is made from real food sources (beets, oranges) with added nutrients and has been clinically proven to increase iron levels without common gastrointestinal side effects, such as nausea or constipation. It also includes folic acid and B12 for healthy red blood cell production, and vitamin C to support iron absorption.
Another option is Gaia Herbs Plant Force Liquid Iron®. It is made with with nourishing foods and botanicals including beet root, dandelion, and Gaia-grown™ nettle. This liquid is gentle on the stomach and a good choice for those who do not want to swallow a tablet and have trouble with constipation.
For best results, take iron supplements between meals, and do not take them with milk, calcium, tea or coffee, as this may reduce absorption.
To find out if you are anemic or iron deficient, you can have a Anemia Blood Panel done. Before taking a supplement, please consult with your primary care practitioner.
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