By C Doussett MPH, RDN
Iron has long been used as a therapy for weakness throughout history, even when the purveyors of this remedy knew nothing of its ability to mitigate weakness or lethargy. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, would recommend ferruginous (rich in iron) water treatments to individuals suffering from what was termed “chlorosis” or iron-deficiency anemia. It made sense to the Greeks that a condition of weakness (anemia) should be met with an element of strength (iron). The god of war, Ares, was associated with the element iron as it was the chief component in his spear (bronze-tipped) and shield, and was a symbol of strength. Yet aside from mythology, iron as a real cause and therefore treatment of lethargy, weakness, and a slew of other symptoms is well understood today and is one of the most researched and well-understood elements in the human diet.
Iron is important for metabolism (energy production), affects many hormones, such as thyroid hormone and testosterone, and is crucial for growth and normal development throughout life. While isolated iron deficiency is fairly uncommon in the US, infants, teenage girls, pregnant and lactating mothers, postmenopausal women, and those with poor diets are at a heightened risk. It is important to receive regular checkups and comply with doctor orders if diagnosed as deficient or anemic. Iron requirements change as we age and range from 8 milligrams (mgs) to 18 mgs and goes as high as 27 milligrams in pregnant and lactating women
Iron deficiency is commonly observed as anemia which may have some of the following symptoms:
- Weakness, feelings of coldness
- Decreased work and school performance
- Slow cognitive or social development
- Decreased immune function.
In nature, iron may be found bound to “heme” or without heme. Heme is a nitrogen-based cyclical structure that is a part of hemoglobin found in red blood cells, and myoglobin found in muscles that carry the oxygen we breathe to cells and carbon dioxide away from cells. Heme iron (found in animal foods) and nonheme iron (plant-based) may be absorbed differently and will certainly be found in different concentrations depending on the makeup of one’s diet. .
Iron from animal sources may be absorbed up to 35% and iron from plant sources may be 20% absorbed, yet this does not mean a non-meat eater needs to consume meat sources of iron. Iron needs in the body are closely regulated and our ability to absorb iron is based on our need to absorb iron. If we are deficient in iron, our body will absorb more in the gastrointestinal tract and if we are “topped” off in our tissues, we will absorb less. Therefore, iron absorption is more an issue of need than an actual issue of source.
The majority of iron supplements are the non-heme variety and absorption is increased when eaten with foods high in vitamin C such as orange juice, bell peppers, broccoli, and strawberries or with a vitamin C supplement (100-250 mgs). It should come as no surprise that the majority of iron consumption in the US comes from breads and grain-based desserts. Here are some excellent iron sources for anyone to include:
Heme (animal) iron sources
- Liver, beef, & chicken
- Clams & oysters
- Salmon & tuna,
Non heme (plant) iron sources
- Lentils & beans
- Spinach & pumpkin seeds
- Fortified cereals and grains
We have an evolved ability in today’s day and age to be diagnosed and remedy many things that afflict us. Luckily, iron deficiency is no longer viewed as a person’s lack of war-like aggression and treated with Ares’ spear. If you have been diagnosed with iron deficiency and given the go-ahead to seek out iron rich foods or supplements, speak to a nutritional consultant today and explore your iron needs. As always, have a healthy day!