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Essential Minerals 5: Iron

Iron is an important mineral that plays various roles within our bodies and is present in every single cell. One of its main functions is to form haemoglobin, which transports oxygen around the body. The common condition of anaemia is often thought to arise from deficient iron levels.

What it does and why we are deficient

Iron forms an important part of the two proteins, haemoglobin and myoglobin, which transport oxygen around the body and into the muscles. The circulation of oxygen is essential for the proper functioning of all our organs. Iron deficiency is thought to be one of the most common mineral deficiencies in the U.K, although this is disputed by some. Because our bodies recycle iron and don't normally expel it, as we would with other nutrients, such as vitamin C, deficiency is much more common among women, who can often lose iron during heavy periods, or while pregnant or breastfeeding. However, levels of serum iron are increased by two to threefold from before menopause to after menopause. Since most of our iron is recycled within the body and excreted only through menstruation or donating blood, it becomes important to understand the extent to which excess iron is damaging to the body.

Understanding Iron Homeostasis and Iron Transportation

Have you been told by your doctor that you are anaemic? We hear the word anaemic and assume it relates to a lack of iron. The word anaemic means 'not in the blood.' In addition to iron, your body needs folate and vitamin B12 to produce enough healthy red blood cells. Anaemia, therefore, can also be a lack of vitamin B12, folate and even vitamin A (in the form of retinol). About 95% of our daily iron requirement comes from our iron recycling system. In other words, our own bodies recycle iron and reuse it. No more than 5% ought to come from our diet. Many leading iron researchers (James F. Collins, PhD; Robert Crichton, PhD; Sir Douglas B Kell, PhD) agree we should not get more than 1.5mg daily of iron orally. It is important to consider not only iron levels in the blood, but throughout the whole body. As mentioned already, our bodies rely on daily iron recycling.

Where results show low levels of iron in the blood but high levels in tissue, (i.e. stored iron), the problem can be one of getting iron from tissues into the blood. Consequently, intracellular iron transport, as a part of the iron recycling process, is more important than intestinal iron absorption (from food and supplements). This is where the copper reliant enzyme, ceruloplasmin, becomes important. Ceruloplasmin carries more than 95% of the total copper in human blood. It also exhibits a copper-dependent activity, responsible for assisting in the transport of iron in plasma by the possible oxidation of ferrous iron into the ferric state. Transferrins are iron-binding blood plasma glycoproteins. Each transferrin molecule has the ability to carry two iron ions but only in the ferric form. The main role of transferrin is to deliver iron to all tissues. A copper deficiency can result in low levels of ceruloplasmin (which is essential to the normal movement of iron from cells to plasma). Iron supplementation, in this instance, may help increase iron levels in the blood to some extent but will not help the movement of iron stored in the cells.

Excess Iron and What it Does to Our Health

It is important to realise that iron is both necessary to the body and potentially toxic. Controlling iron levels in the body is thus a critically important part of human health and disease. Unbound iron in the body becomes a free radical and causes oxidative stress, capable of damaging a wide variety of cellular structures and ultimately killing the cells. In fact, there are many scientific studies implicating excess iron in osteoporosis. After menopause, a woman's iron levels increase. Some scientific researchers believe the link between osteoporosis and menopause is due to the fact that women are accruing iron now that they are no longer menstruating. Excess unbound iron (more common in those with mineral dysregulation such as low copper/ magnesium and little antioxidant support) causes oxidative stress in the body leading to changes in the osteoblasts, preventing them from maintaining density.

Beware Iron-Enriched Products

Today, anything that is wheat related, including bread, cakes, pasta, mixes, rice (basically anything in a box)) has most likely been enriched with supplemental iron. When you see the word 'fortified' on a box or product label, that means iron. Supplemental iron, when you are already iron replete, is toxic and causes oxidative stress throughout your body as well as in your intestinal tract where, according to Thomas E. Levy, MD, JD (Levy), it is the primary cause of leaky gut. You should be limiting your food to fresh meat, fruit, and vegetables as well as gluten and wheat free, organic flour products (but even then read the labels as about 10% are enriched with iron). This applies to all baby formulas, cereal products and infant products. Make your own baby food from fresh vegetables, or at least read labels. There are numerous studies showing how toxic iron is above the levels you need for a normal blood count.

What to look for when you go for blood tests

'Ferritin' is the blood test you should ask for when you are looking at iron storage. Serum iron levels and total iron binding capacity are fine but do not tell you anything about whether or not you have a high, normal or low level of iron stored in your body. Some labs in USA list the normal ferritin as 30-400 reference range. Reference ranges are arrived at by calculating the average of the people that attend specific labs. According to Levy, this reference range tells you most people are toxic. He goes as far as stating that every disease in the body is worsened substantially by this chronic ingestion of iron in foods and many supplements. One of the many benefits of an organic diet is that it does not have iron in it.

Signs and symptoms of iron deficiency

Having discussed the fact that excess iron in the body is toxic, this does not mean you should refrain from ingesting iron. It means it is important to see a healthcare practitioner if you have any of the signs and symptoms of iron deficiency, who will arrange the appropriate blood tests. The main symptom of iron deficiency is anaemia. Anaemia occurs when there are not enough red blood cells, or when there is not enough haemoglobin in the cells. This means that oxygen does not get transported around the body efficiently.

Sufferers may experience anaemia through symptoms such as:

  • muscle weakness

  • fatigue

  • pale skin

  • mood swings

  • palpitations

If you have these symptoms, please get in touch with your doctor or qualified nutritional therapist. A simple blood test can confirm whether you have iron deficient anaemia.

How to meet your iron quota

It should be perfectly possible to meet your iron quota through your food, with a little care. Contrary to popular belief, fruits and vegetables can be a good source of iron. In addition, vitamin C helps increase the absorption of iron into the body. Fruits and vegetables high in iron include dried apricots, spinach, podded peas, asparagus, white button mushrooms, acorn squash, leeks, dried coconut and broccoli.

Other foods that are good sources of iron include:

  • Spirulina : 1 tbsp = 48% rda

  • Beef steak : 100g = 14% rda

  • Beef liver : 81g = 28% rda

  • Lentils : 1 cup = 31% rda

  • Dark chocolate 112g bar = 39% rda

  • Kale : 100g = 9% rda

Supplementing iron

Iron-deficient anaemia is not a condition that should be self-diagnosed. If you suspect you are iron-deficient, contact your doctor to arrange appropriate tests and supplements.

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