Iron Deficiency + 4 Steps to Increase Iron
You may have been told your iron is fine…when it may not be.
So, let’s talk low iron.
First, why is iron important?
Iron is an important part of hemoglobin, a protein which helps our red blood cells transport oxygen throughout our body.
Iron is also important for normal production and function of various cells and hormones, supporting our growth and development. It’s a big deal!
What happens when iron is deficient?
Iron deficiency can cause various symptoms, including:
- Fatigue (low or lack of energy)
- Light headedness/Fainting
- Heart palpitations
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Hair loss
- Cold hands and/or feet
- Restless leg syndrome
- Immune dysfunction
- Nail changes (brittle, ridged)
- Foggy thinking, poor memory
- Heavy periods
Because these symptoms are not specific to iron deficiency, it’s important to investigate further with lab testing.
Typical lab testing for iron deficiency includes:
Complete Blood Count (CBC)
- A CBC looks at your red blood cells, hemoglobin, white blood cells and platelets. If your hemoglobin and red blood cell count is low, along with low iron, this indicates iron-deficiency anemia.
- Ferritin is a marker of stored iron in the body and can give insight into how depleted your iron levels may be.
- To complicate matters, ferritin levels will increase during infection and/or inflammation. Therefore, this marker needs to be looked at in the context of your health.
- Serum iron is a snapshot in time and can be quite variable.
- For example, if you take an iron supplement or do something that increases iron, your blood will reflect this with an increased serum iron level, and thus may not reflect your baseline level.
- For this reason, it is combined with other markers in an iron panel called Total Iron Binding Capacity and Iron Saturation. These markers tell us what’s up with your iron status.
Interpreting lab results—How do I make sense of the numbers?
Remember that the reference range on your lab results basically indicates the absence or presence of disease. In the case of low iron, this would be iron deficiency or iron deficiency anemia.
However, you may notice that your results are within the range (aka you’re ‘fine’, even if you don’t feel ‘fine’), but the result/s may be at the low end or high end.
What result is ideal or optimal for you really depends…
- Do you have a regular period? Or are you peri-menopausal or menopausal?
- Are your periods really heavy? Are you bleeding between periods?
- Are you vegan or vegetarian?
- Do you have a health condition that affects bleeding or absorption of nutrients?
- Are you pregnant (and in which trimester)?
- Are you taking medications that could impact iron absorption?
That is why it’s a good idea to work with a knowledgeable health practitioner who can go through the numbers with you in the context of your symptoms and whole health.
4 Steps to improve your iron levels
1. Increase your Dietary Iron
Dietary iron occurs in two forms: heme and nonheme. Iron from animal foods is heme iron and is absorbed 2-4x better than plant-sourced nonheme iron. This is because heme iron is just more absorbable and because plant foods also contain compounds that inhibit iron absorption.
Foods rich in heme iron:
- Lean meat, organ meats (ex. liver, heart), seafood and poultry
Foods containing nonheme iron:
- Vegetables, fruits (ex. dried apricots)
- Beans and legumes
- Foods fortified with iron (ex. breads and cereals)
2. Add some vitamin C
You can enhance iron absorption from your diet by consuming iron-rich foods with a source of vitamin C or other acidic ingredients, such as vinegar.
Examples: marinate meat using a vinegar based marinade, eat citrus with your spinach salad, add ground meat to your tomato based sauce.
To avoid inhibiting iron absorption, don’t eat iron-rich foods with calcium-rich foods, calcium-containing supplements, or antacids. Calcium competes with iron for absorption.
3. Cook with cast iron
Cast iron can increase the iron content of your foods, basically ‘fortifying’ it.
You can also purchase small iron cooking tools (ex. Lucky Iron Fish; no affiliation) that also help infuse your food with iron.
4. Work with your health care provider to supplement wisely
Not all iron supplements are equal. Many iron supplements are poorly absorbed or have undesirable side effects on your digestive tract, such as constipation, nausea and heartburn. These types typically include ferrous fumarate or ferrous sulfate, whereas iron bisglycinate tends to be better absorbed and less harsh on your gut.
Work with your healthcare provider to find the option best for you!
While iron deficiency is quite common, it is treatable.
If you struggle with iron deficiency or if you experience several of the symptoms from the list above and want to figure out what’s going on, reach out and schedule an appointment with Dr. Candace.
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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Office of dietary supplements – iron. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-Consumer/#h3