Iron deficiency is probably something you’ve heard about before. It’s a pretty common topic because it’s a pretty common occurrence. You might have even been told at one of your annual checkups that your iron levels are low, since many blood work panels will routinely check iron levels.
Low iron anemia
Iron is an essential mineral that the body needs for growth and development. Iron deficiency is commonly called anemia. Anemia occurs when your blood lacks sufficient healthy red blood cells, the cells that carry oxygen to the body’s tissues.
Without enough iron, your body can’t make hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the protein inside red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body. It transfers oxygen in the blood to our tissues and organs and then carries carbon dioxide from our organs and tissues back to the lungs.
This process helps the body function properly, providing oxygen to the muscles and brain in order to support energy levels and physical and mental performance.
About 30% of the global population has iron deficiency anemia. Anemia is the most common blood condition in the U.S., with women and children being most susceptible. And, as a whole, we’re becoming even more iron deficient. Recent studies say that the average American adult’s intake of iron dropped by 6.6% for males and 9.5% for females between 1999 and 2018.
Symptoms of iron deficiency
Important note: We are health coaches, not doctors. If you have serious symptoms, you’ll want to see your doctor immediately. Iron deficiency cases can be mild or severe. Please seek immediate care if you develop serious symptoms.
It actually takes a while to see symptoms of low iron. The body is able to use stored iron in the muscles, liver, spleen, and bone marrow. But, when these stored levels of iron become low, iron deficiency anemia sets in. The red blood cells actually become smaller and contain less hemoglobin. The blood is then able to carry less oxygen.
If you or a loved one have dealt with low iron, you might know that some of the most common symptoms include extreme fatigue, weakness, dizziness, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath. These symptoms make sense, given that without the right amount of iron, our cells don’t get enough oxygen. Additional common symptoms include pale or dry skin, chest pain, fast heartbeat, headache, inflammation, hair loss, or tongue soreness.
I’ve struggled with iron deficiency in the past, so I know about this on a personal level. I didn’t have the typical symptoms. My symptoms included cold hands and feet and brittle nails, which, although they are documented side effects of anemia, don’t always make you think of iron deficiency.
Four benefits of getting the right amount of iron
Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the symptoms and problems associated with low iron. But you might not know the important benefits of getting the right amount of iron in your body. Let’s talk about four of our favorite benefits of iron.
Benefit #1: Getting the right amount of iron supports good energy levels.
When I’m dealing with a client who struggles with tiredness and fatigue, I always go to their blood work or hair analysis and see if they have low iron. At the cellular level, iron is used to make energy and fuel enzymes. Iron is an oxygen carrier, transferring oxygen from one cell to another.
If you have low iron, you essentially deprive your body’s cells of oxygen. Oxygen is vital to every single organ and system in the body; without it, it cannot perform even the most routine of functions. No wonder you’re always tired and don’t have energy!
Oxygenated blood helps replace worn out cells. It supports your immune system. And it provides you with cellular energy.
For my clients who are in an early stage of low-iron energy, I recommend increasing iron-rich foods. (More on this below.) If a client is severely deficient, I recommend they see their doctor for an iron supplement. It’s very important that you get the right amount of iron. Too much can cause problems for your liver and other complications.
Benefit #2: The right amount of iron can improve sleep.
If you follow us here at More Than Healthy, you know that we are always looking for ways to improve sleep. We believe that sleep is the foundation of our health. Healthy, restorative, and consistent sleep is key. But so many struggle to sleep well. Over 50 million Americans suffer from over 80 different sleep disorders. And millions more suffer with intermittent sleep problems.
Iron and circadian rhythms
If you’re struggling with insomnia, have your iron levels checked. You might be surprised to learn that the right amount of iron helps regulate your circadian rhythms. In a recent study, University of Utah researchers proved that dietary iron plays an important role in the circadian clock of the liver. “Iron is like the dial that sets the timing of the clock,” reports Dr. Simcox, the study’s lead author.
Iron and blood pressure
Proper red blood cell count can also result in less fluctuation of blood pressure, which can also keep you awake at night. High blood pressure has long been associated with not getting enough sleep. New research confirms that people who struggle with chronic insomnia have a higher risk of high blood pressure.
Iron and restless leg syndrome
Do you or someone you love struggle with restless leg syndrome? This uncomfortable condition is usually worse during the nighttime hours when you’re lying down and can really affect the quality of your sleep. Findings of one randomized controlled trial showed statistically significant findings supporting the benefits of iron supplementation to sleep, especially regarding restless leg syndrome. Iron supplementation was also reported to result in better overall well-being.
Iron and REM sleep
Another study showed a significant positive correlation between sleep quality and iron supplement intake. Following 3,127 participants, results stated that a deficiency in iron not only has an effect on sleep quality, quantity, and timing, but iron also affects the modulation of REM sleep. Getting enough REM sleep is vital for restorative sleep and is something we track each night.
This same study also reported that iron plays an important role in the myelination of neurons, which is the process that ensures smooth electrical signals in your brain neurons. It also protects those same neurons against physical forces and provides a strong microstructural network that stiffens the white matter tissue as a whole.
In addition, iron is a co-factor, meaning it works with the enzyme tyrosine hydroxylase, which converts tyrosine to dopamine – that all-important neurotransmitter that assists in keeping your circadian rhythms at optimum levels and helps keep you happy.
I know, that’s a mouthful! I tried to keep it simple, but it’s a very complex process. But to sum it up… the proper amount of iron makes a difference in how well you sleep.
Benefit #3: The right amount of iron can improve mental performance.
This benefit makes a lot of sense since the oxygen supply in the blood is aided by iron. Despite its relatively small size, the brain uses approximately 20% of the body’s blood oxygen, and that oxygen is directly related to brain health and its functions.
Some of the highest concentrations of iron in the body are maintained in the brain. Iron affects neurotransmitters like dopamine and adrenaline that are involved in emotion, attention, reward, and movement. Chronic deficiencies in brain iron actually alter brain neurochemistry. This disrupts important brain processes and eventually leads to diseases. Poor blood flow in the brain can stimulate cognitive disorders.
Because of the brain’s high energy demand, it requires high iron levels to generate ATP (the energy molecule) in the mitochondria. If you’ve been following us, you’ve heard us talk about mitochondria before. These are the main energy generators of brain cells. Healthy, functioning mitochondria are vital to our health and well-being.
The brain and oxidative stress
Unfortunately, like everything else, mitochondrial health tends to decrease as we age. So it’s extra important to do what we can to keep mitochondrial function at optimal levels and oxidative stress as low as possible. This is how we keep the negative effects of aging and disease at bay.
Iron deficiency damages mitochondrial DNA and has been shown to impair mitochondrial function. This explains why iron deficiency results in an increase of oxidative stress markers.
The brain is especially susceptible to oxidative damage due to its high fatty acid content and oxygen demand. Oxidation is the root cause of over 260 diseases. It’s also the root cause of aging. Oxidation is what happens when you cut an apple and leave it on the counter. It shrivels and gets wrinkly and mushy.
I don’t want that happening to my body – or my brain!
I am fascinated by this topic and the studies that have been done in this area. There is a fine line between insufficient iron and too much iron. If you get too much, it causes another set of problems for both the body and the brain. That’s why it’s important to work with your doctor to correct your levels.
Benefit #4: The right amount of iron supports muscle growth, body development, and physical performance.
This benefit also makes sense when you think about the role iron plays in the body. If your red blood cells have a reduced ability to carry oxygen, you lack energy. When you lack energy, you have a reduced work capacity. Iron affects muscle growth and development and physical performance due to its role in energy production in mitochondria.
The effects of low iron on exercise performance are well understood. The right amount of iron is critical for performance. Athletes, especially endurance athletes, are actually at greater risk of being iron deficient in comparison to the general population. Not only is physical performance affected, but recovery also takes longer.
Now we have additional information about this benefit of iron. Recent studies suggest that individuals with low iron stores actually experience changes in physical performance.
One study involved 73 sedentary, untrained women who exhibited depleted iron but didn’t have iron-deficiency anemia. They were split into 4 groups: aerobic training plus iron supplementation, aerobic training plus placebo, no training plus supplemental iron, and no training plus placebo.
This was an 8-week experiment where the exercise group worked out 5 days a week cycling at 75-85% of their age-predicted maximum heart rate. Exercise tests and oxygen and iron measurements were performed at the beginning and at week eight.
The results of this study showed that aerobic training, iron supplementation, and their combination all significantly improved several exercise performance measures. Additionally, participants who had iron supplementation had improved endurance at near-maximal intensities.
Natural ways to increase the amount of iron you’re getting
If you find yourself low in iron and aren’t showing serious symptoms, your first approach might be to start adding more iron-rich foods to your diet. There are two sources of iron from food: heme iron, found in animal protein and fish, and non-heme iron, primarily found in plants and foods fortified with iron.
Heme iron is more easily absorbed than non-heme iron, so it’s important to get both types in your diet. If you are vegetarian, you need to aim for nearly twice as much iron per day since your sources are non-heme iron.
Heme iron foods
Some of the highest iron-rich foods are red meat, especially organ meat. I enjoy red meat and don’t seem to have issues with eating it, so I upped my intake of it. I struggle with eating organ meats, however. David loves my Liver with Onions. I’ve disguised them in many different ways, but I still just don’t like them. Instead, I simply supplement my diet with Ancestral Grass-Fed Beef Organs. I’ve improved my iron by just taking a couple a week. I think that’s because I also eat many other iron-rich foods. I enjoy eggs, so I eat them a few times a week to help increase my iron.
Some of the other foods that pack a high heme iron count are oysters, clams, and turkey. Chicken isn’t super high in iron, but if you eat the chicken livers, they are. One food that I like that has a good amount of iron is octopus. It’s not as high as clams and oysters, but it’s up there with red meat.
Non-heme iron foods
The list of non-heme iron foods is long. Leafy greens (especially spinach), almost all beans but especially lima, navy, kidney, and black beans, which are my personal favorite. Also, lentils, chickpeas, edamame, and pumpkin are good sources. Sesame seeds can be enjoyed raw or added to my granola recipe, which David enjoys putting on his L Reuteri yogurt in the morning.
Some fruits with iron include bananas and avocados, something we try to eat regularly for healthy fats as well. We also like dried apricots, dates, and raisins.
If you find you are struggling to increase your iron through eating high-iron foods, you may have to supplement. Again, we urge you to check with your doctor as iron deficiency can be a serious condition.
How about iron-fortified foods?
There are a lot of processed foods, especially cereals, that have fortified their products with iron. And while I think it’s nice you can simply get more iron by eating a bowl of raisin bran, I don’t advocate it for my clients because of all the other unhealthy things you get with that processed bowl of cereal.
I’d much rather have my clients get their iron from some of the foods we’ve already listed. Or, if they can’t do that, then supplement. That extra bit of iron isn’t worth the toll the processed foods take on your health.
Are you getting the right amount of iron?
If you don’t know if you’re iron deficient, then a great way to find out is with hair analysis testing, an amazingly informative service now offered at More Than Healthy. With just a few strands of your hair, you receive a full report that looks at toxins, nutrients, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, electromagnetic frequency exposure, chemicals, radiation, parasites, and immune factors, as well as which foods you should avoid – and it all only takes about 15 minutes! Go to our website to learn more. You can schedule a local hair analysis or order it online to be mailed to you today.
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