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Have you been told your iron is low? More and more people today are being diagnosed with anemia, often (but not always) caused by low iron levels. Although iron pills or supplements can help boost iron levels, they won’t fix the root cause. Instead of just treating the symptoms, here’s how to increase iron naturally.
What Does Iron Do in The First Place?
You probably already know that iron is an important mineral we all need to be healthy. Iron is crucial to health because it’s in hemoglobin. That’s the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the tissues of the body. It’s also in myoglobin, a protein that provides oxygen to the muscles. Healthy iron levels are also vital for a good immune response.
Iron is involved in every aspect of the body’s ability to grow and repair. This includes physical growth, brain development, cell function, and hormone synthesis. It’s especially important for brain health because of its role in oxygen delivery. When the brain is oxygen-deprived, our thinking becomes clouded, our memory lapses, and it’s difficult to make good decisions.
If we don’t have enough iron over time, symptoms may begin to develop.
What if Iron Isn’t the Problem?
Some health experts, like this one, point out that we may actually be overly saturated with iron. The problem is, can our bodies actually use what we have? Copper is key to regulating both oxygen and iron in the body and without it, usable iron dips down. There are other vitamins and minerals we also need to have a proper iron balance.
What Are The Symptoms of Low Iron?
First, how would you even know if you had low iron levels? Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include the following:
- Extreme fatigue
- Pale skin
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Brain fog
- Lowered immune function
A mild deficiency won’t necessarily cause noticeable symptoms. The symptoms only arise once the body is depleted enough that the body’s ability to carry oxygen throughout the body is affected.
Testing Iron Levels
Low iron levels can be indicated with a blood test, but it’s a little more nuanced than that. Our bodies store about 70% of available iron in hemoglobin and myoglobin. These are found in our red blood cells and muscle cells and help transfer oxygen. The other 25% or so of iron is bound to ferritin proteins (mostly in the liver and immune cells).
Ferritin levels point towards how much iron we have in reserve. Low ferritin levels are one of the earliest signs of iron deficiency anemia. To get the complete picture, healthcare providers should test both ferritin and serum (blood) iron levels.
Even then this doesn’t tell us how much available iron is in the body. Since most of our iron is stored in the body’s tissues, it won’t show up on a blood test. Instead, we need to view iron levels in light of copper, magnesium, and other vitamin levels that help regulate iron in the body.
Our bodies naturally have an iron recycling system. When it isn’t functioning properly it can show up as iron deficiency anemia on blood tests: even though there may be ample amounts of iron stashed in bodily tissues. You can listen to my talk with minerals expert Morley Robinson here for more on the subject.
How Much Iron Do You Need?
How much iron we need varies depending on age, sex, and health conditions. Men, women, children, adolescents, and pregnant women have different iron needs. Menstruation causes monthly blood loss for women, so cyclic women will need more iron than non-cyclic women.
- Women (19-50) need 18 mg/day
- Men (19-50) need 8 mg/day
- Adults (51+) need 8 mg/day
- Pregnant women need 27 mg/day
- Breastfeeding women need 9 mg/day
Infants, children, and teens need different amounts depending on age and sex:
- Birth to 6 months 0.27 mg/day
- Infants (7-12 months) 11 mg/day
- Children (1-3 years) 7 mg/day
- Children (4-8 years) 10 mg/day
- Children (9-13 years) 8 mg/day
- Teen boys (14-18 years) 11 mg/day
- Teen girls (14-18 years) 15 mg/day
Iron Side Effects
Overdoing iron can cause some side effects. The most common is probably constipation, but it can also lead to low energy, joint pain, abdominal pain, and even weight loss.
Ferrous sulfate is a commonly prescribed and over-the-counter form of iron supplement. It’s harder on the stomach and is more likely to cause nausea and constipation. It’s also poorly absorbed. Choosing the right sources of iron can really help to alleviate side effects.
What Causes Low Iron Levels?
There are many causes of low iron, from low iron intake to blood loss to malabsorption issues. Risk factors for iron deficiency anemia include:
- Age: Infants and young children
- Heavy menstrual bleeding
- Frequent blood donation
- Disease status: cancer or gastrointestinal disorders
- A vegan diet
- A deficiency in iron co-factors, like copper, magnesium, and vitamin C
- Chronic inflammation
In otherwise healthy adults, low iron levels often go back to poor digestion. For those who eat animal protein, the solution isn’t necessarily more food sources of iron. It’s more about making better use of what we’re already eating.
We can also point the finger at chronic inflammation causing low iron. This is often thanks to chronic infections, gut disorders, heavy metals, and more. I mentioned earlier how copper helps regulate our iron balance. When we’re always stressed and inflamed our cortisol levels jump. The more cortisol the harder it is for us to make the ceruloplasmin we need to transport copper.
How to Increase Iron with Better Digestion
If you’ve been told you have anemia or low iron, it’s a good idea to first look at your digestion. The small intestine is where we absorb iron from the foods we eat. We can’t absorb iron or other nutrients as well if the gastrointestinal system is compromised.
Begin by improving the absorption of dietary iron with these strategies:
- Chew your food. We often overlook this first step of digestion, but it’s crucial. Chewing food helps physically break it down and starts the production of saliva and digestive juices. Food must be chewed thoroughly for the digestion and absorption of nutrients, including iron.
- Optimize your stomach acid. To properly begin the breakdown of food, we need adequate stomach acid. Antacids and proton pump inhibitor drugs interfere with this process.
- Address gut dysbiosis. When there’s an imbalance of gut bacteria nutrient absorption tends to suffer. Based on the results of gut health testing, we may need to get rid of overgrowth or support the growth of certain beneficial species.
It’s so important to restore gut health to improve our ability to absorb nutrients from the food we eat. Then when we do include more iron-rich foods, we’re getting the full benefits.
Include Iron-Rich Foods
It’s still important to supply your body with good quality iron-rich foods. An important thing to know about iron-containing foods is that there are two different types: heme iron and non-heme iron.
Non-heme iron comes from plant sources, like spinach. It’s also the form of iron added to breakfast cereal, orange juice, and other iron-fortified foods. Our bodies absorb heme iron much better than non-heme iron. I stay away from artificially fortified foods and opt for more natural nutrient sources.
Here are some good sources of iron in each of these categories:
Meat, poultry, and seafood actually have both types of iron. They have the non-heme iron that plants have, but they also uniquely have heme iron. Foods high in the heme form of iron include:
- Red meat: grass-fed beef, bison, venison
- Poultry: chicken, turkey, duck
- Fish: sardines, tuna, salmon, mackerel, halibut, haddock, perch
- Seafood: shrimp, clams, oysters, scallops
- Organ meats, including calf’s liver, kidneys, chicken liver, cod liver, beef heart, tripe, and more.
These are probably the best to focus on since the heme iron is better absorbed. But adding some non-heme iron foods can only help – as long as you don’t have oxalate issues.
Plant foods that are good sources of non-heme iron include:
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Legumes – beans, lentils, and peas
- Dried fruit like raisins, prunes, and dried apricots
To improve the absorption of non-heme iron foods, eat them in a meal along with heme iron-rich foods. One idea is to enjoy some sauteed spinach or Swiss chard alongside a steak. For an iron-rich snack, combine beef jerky with a nut and dried fruit mix.
Avoid Things That Decrease Iron Absorption
To improve the absorption of iron already in your diet, you may also want to avoid things that decrease iron absorption. Here are some known substances that interfere with iron absorption:
- Calcium – Dairy products or calcium-rich foods.
- Tannins – Cola drinks, tea, and coffee all have tannins.
- Phosphates – Phosphates are what give carbonated beverages their fizz.
- Fiber – Taking fiber supplements, or adding bran to meals can lower iron absorption.
That said, it may be helpful to avoid consuming these foods or beverages along with your iron-rich foods. So something like iron-fortified cereal with milk isn’t doing anyone any favors!
Don’t Forget Vitamin C
Our bodies need Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid) to absorb iron. Including vitamin C-rich foods (like grapefruit) with iron-rich foods can help improve the body’s iron uptake. Of course, citrus fruits aren’t the only food source of vitamin C.
Other options are broccoli or cauliflower, bell peppers, tomatoes, and others. A couple of ideas are burgers with tomato slices and chicken fajitas with bell peppers. Many cultures traditionally combine iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods. Iron-rich fish is often enhanced with a squeeze of lemon juice.
If you take vitamin C supplements as I do, you may want to take them with iron-rich meals.
Cook With Cast Iron
Cooking in cast iron pots or pans can also increase the amount of iron in the food. A couple of pans can go a long way, as they can be used on the stovetop, oven, grill, or campfire. I go into how to season and care for cast iron cookware in this blog post.
The Best Iron Supplements
After getting my genetics tested I discovered I personally do better with less iron. This also means cutting way down on red meat. And while my kids take some supplements, I haven’t given them iron either. Even during pregnancy, I preferred to get my iron from food and nutritive herbs.
For someone looking to boost iron levels, typical iron supplements may not be the best option. A whole foods-based option is Floraxdix Iron and Herbs supplement. This one is a popular recommendation from midwives during pregnancy. Beef liver pills are another whole-food way to naturally get iron.
It’s also important to get other minerals and co-factors into balance to better use the iron already in the body.
The Bottom Line on How to Increase Iron
By restoring digestion and building nutrition for low iron, your iron levels can greatly improve. Your healthcare provider can test your iron levels if you suspect they’re low. Then you’ll know whether to increase the iron content of your diet or whether to look into potential interferences with iron absorption.
Have you been told you have low iron levels? Have you been able to restore previously low iron stores? What’s has worked for you? Share below!
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- Ems T, St Lucia K, Huecker MR. Biochemistry, Iron Absorption. [Updated 2022 Apr 21]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448204/
- Zijp, I. M., Korver, O., & Tijburg, L. B. (2000). Effect of tea and other dietary factors on iron absorption. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 40(5), 371–398.
- Cook, J. D., Noble, N. L., Morck, T. A., Lynch, S. R., & Petersburg, S. J. (1983). Effect of fiber on nonheme iron absorption. Gastroenterology, 85(6), 1354–1358.
- Herrmann, L. (2019, June 17). Iron and Ferritin: High and Low Levels Explained.
- Robbins, M. (2021, February 1). Iron Toxicity Post Index. Root Cause Protocol.
- Nemeth, E., & Ganz, T. (2014). Anemia of inflammation. Hematology/oncology clinics of North America, 28(4), 671–vi.
Discussion (2 Comments)
Great article, thank you! When I was pregnant I was told I was so anemic I needed to start taking an iron supplement. Since food is always my first go to for medicine, I declined and did a bit of research. Simply eating a kiwi with my weekly dose of pasture- raised, local ground beef burgers raised my iron levels so much my OBGYN was in shock. Pairing foods for optimal nutrient absorption is fascinating and has been a focus of mine since 🙂
This is amazing advice. Do you have a blog or something with more tips you have found?