Iron is one of the most common types of nutritional deficiency in the world. In fact, 1 in 8 Australians do not consume enough iron and we see regularly in clinic, iron deficiency.
Iron deficiency is an insufficient amount of iron present in the body. Without enough iron, your body cannot produce enough haemoglobin in red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body. It also plays a role in immune resistance, thyroid function, respiration, skin and nail formation and even bone health.
The symptoms of iron deficiency include:
- Fatigue and a lack of energy
- Pale skin
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Cold hands and feet
- Brittle nails
- Unusual food cravings
- Poor appetite
- Inflammation or soreness of the tongue
When it comes to insufficient iron in the body, most people only worry about re-establishing your iron stores (taking an iron supplement), however from a naturopathic perspective we want to investigate why this is happening. It's important to establish why as it may be due to a more sinister cause or simple diet and lifestyle changes; it may be an indication of other potential nutritional deficiencies and may prevent your iron from becoming low again in the future.
What causes low iron in the body?
There are 5 main causes of iron deficiency in the body:
- a diet lacking in iron
- heavy menstrual bleeding in women (which is not normal and can be addressed
- an inability to absorb iron
- growth period
If you believe you are low in iron, please do not supplement without having your blood levels tested. An elevated iron result has identical symptoms to iron deficiency and supplementing with additional iron can be harmful.
A diet lacking in iron can be due to a plant-based diet (either vegetarian or vegan) or it can be due to eating inadequate amounts of iron rich foods, or a lack of nutrients that support the absorption of iron. It is important what you are eating with your iron source and increasing vitamin C and vitamin E rich foods around this time.
There are also foods/beverages that should be limited around iron rich food such as tea and coffee as the tannins can block the iron from being absorbed in the intestines. Leave a 2 hour gap after eating to consume your cuppa especially if you struggle to maintain your iron levels.
A heavy menstrual bleed can cause a loss of iron. Any loss greater than 80ml of blood during a menstruation is considered a heavy menstruation and can contribute to iron deficiency.
A period that lasts longer than 5 days can also contribute to iron deficiency regardless of flow.
If you believe you are bleeding heavily during menstruation, please reach out to address why.
Iron from the food we eat is absorbed into our bloodstream in the small intestine. There are a few reasons why iron is not able to be absorbed:
- Coeliac Disease - Coeliac disease which is well known as the autoimmune intolerance of gluten-based products, also effects the structure of the intestinal lining and can impact the absorption of iron and other nutrients.
- Infections of the digestive tract. Any infection, including bacteria, viruses, worms, parasites etc. within the small intestine can cause impaired function due to damaged caused by the microbe but also the damage caused by the immune system in its attempt to eradicate the bug.
- Digestive inflammation. Any inflammation within the small intestine is enough to impair the ability of iron (and other nutrients also). Inflammation can be produced by foods that irritate the digestive system or microbes, an acidic diet or unaddressed digestive symptoms.
- Microbiome imbalances. An imbalanced microbiome can affect the absorption of iron through the intestines. Particular bacterial strains are now being studied and have shown to assist and increase the amount of dietary iron that is able to be absorbed.
A significant period of growth such as in children can increase the demand of iron in the body. Children also struggle on occasions with consuming iron rich foods and in combination of growth spurts can lead them fatigued and not themselves.
Pregnancy is also another period of growth, iron stores are needed to serve your own increased blood volume as well as a source of haemoglobin for the growing foetus.
We encourage everyone to question their iron deficiency as iron supplementation should not be a permanent solution.