Iron: Popeye’s best friend

Over the past month, I have had at least three people suggest that they need Iron supplementation. They claim they are out of breath, feel lethargic and are exhausted after a hard days work. These are all signs of Iron deficiency or what is more commonly called Anaemia. Do not go rushing to buy an Iron supplement however as there are many pros and cons you should be aware of first.

What is Iron?

Iron is an essential element that binds to both oxygen and various porphyrin units; forming protein complexes such as Hemoglobin, Myglobin and Cytochromes. Most people have heard of Hemoglobin. It is the taxi that distributes oxygen throughout your body, delivering it to various tissues and thus providing a valuable building block for the production of energy.

The breakdown of Iron based proteins in your body is as follows:

70% Haemoglobin: Transports oxygen to your bodies tissues

25% Ferritin: Stores Iron and releases it into the blood stream when required

4% Myoglobin: Stores Iron and transports oxygen in the skeletal and smooth muscles

<1% Cytochrome proteins: Involved in energy transport pathways

What are the greatest sources of Iron?

There are two types of Iron. Non-heme Iron and Heme Iron. Non-Heme Iron is found in nuts, beans, legumes and vegetables while Heme Iron is found in red meats and seafood. As the name suggests, heme based Iron is in the Hemoglobin form. Heme Iron is more bio-available (easily absorbed) than non Heme Iron. This is primarily due to legumes and beans containing phytic acid; an organic acid that binds to Iron, reducing its ability to be absorbed through the GI tract. Various other essential minerals such as Calcium and Zinc will also compete with Iron to be absorbed through the bodies GI tract, lowering Iron’s bio-availability.

The top 3 Iron rich foods are:

  1. Spirulina
  2. Liver
  3. Grass feed beef

Who is at risk of developing an Iron deficiency?

  • Vegans and vegetarians
  • Females who are menstruating. Iron levels will decrease when a female menstruates due to blood loss and is one of the main reasons why females are more prone to becoming anaemic than males.

Optimal levels of Iron:

According to the Australian Nutritional Guidelines, the optimal level of Iron for male adults is 8 mg per day. Females who are menstruating should be aiming for 18 mg per day, females who are post menopausal should aim for 8 mg per day and pregnant females should aim for 27 mg per day. Your Iron serum level should be within the range of 11-30 micromol/L, preferably around the 20-25 micromol/L level.

A standard blood test will also detail your Ferritin levels; the protein used to store and release Iron into the blood stream. Ferritin levels should be between 30-300 micromol/L. Ideally you should be aiming for 200-250 micromol/L of Ferritin as a rough guide.

Health benefits of Iron 

  1. Iron is essential for the transportation and delivery of oxygen into your bodies tissues and muscles.
  2. Aids in brain function. This benefit is an extension of the previous point. Since the brain is the organ that requires one of the largest amounts of oxygen, providing the body with healthy levels of Iron will assist in proper blood flow and the delivery of vital nutrients. This is essential for reducing your risk of developing neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
  3. Reduces the prevalence of restless leg syndrome. 
  4. Is involved in the production of neurotransmitters such as nor-epinephrine, dopamine and serotonin.
  5. Supports the immune system. Since Iron brings oxygen to damaged cells and tissues, the repair process can improve, helping to taper infections and inflammation.

Signs of Iron deficiency

  • Reduced physical work capacity (feeling fatigued when walking up a flight of stairs or constantly panting during mild exercise)
  • Constantly feeling sleepy or wanting to go to bed regularly throughout the day
  • Brain fog/slow cognitive reaction times
  • Compromised immune system. Always getting the cold or flu

What if I have high Iron levels?

High Iron levels are equally as worrying as low Iron levels. Iron can be toxic at high levels, primarily due to its varying oxidative states. It can transition between Fe2+and Fe3+, causing oxidative stress on your body and damaging the DNA in your cells. The best way to reduce your Iron levels is to remove a set amount of blood from your body. Once you have consulted your trusted medical professional, this can be achieved by your local pathologist or a phlebotomist.

Iron Supplementation

Make sure that it is absolutely necessary that you need to take an Iron supplement. As discussed before, high levels of Iron can be toxic to the body. In addition, high amounts of Iron (45 mg plus per day) can cause a patient to become nauseous, vomit and have stomach aches. If you are required to take an Iron supplement, the following is advised:

  • Take an Iron supplement which contains chelating compounds such as acetic acid, gluconic acid or vitamin C. This will assist in the absorption of Iron. My suggestion would be to take your Iron supplement with home brewed Kombucha; this will increase the absorption of Iron while resetting your gut flora with good bacteria and yeasts.
  • Avoid taking an Iron supplement at the same time as a Zinc or Calcium supplement as they will alter each others bio-availability.
  • Monitor your Iron and Ferritin levels every 2-3 months to ensure that they are stable.

Disclaimer:

This is information that I have gathered from journal articles and my experience. Please seek advice from a holistic GP to determine what is best for your health.

Please contact Dr. Daniel Lombardo for more information or if you have any questions about Iron supplementation.


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