Iron is an essential mineral for blood production.
Approximately 70% of the iron in the body is found in haemoglobin, the red blood cells of blood, and myoglobin, the form of haemoglobin found in muscle tissue. Haemoglobin is essential for transferring oxygen in your blood from the lungs to the tissues. Myoglobin accepts, stores, transports and releases oxygen in muscle tissue. In summary, good iron levels can support oxygen transportation, the immune system and cellular energy.
Symptoms of iron deficiency include:
- brittle hair
- difficulty swallowing
- digestive disturbances
- fragile bones
- hair loss
- inflammation of the tissues of the mouth
- nails that have ridges running lengthways
- slow mental reactions
Iron deficiency is usually due to insufficient intake, however other factors include:
- intestinal bleeding
- poor digestion
- long-term illness
- prolonged use of antacids
- excessive coffee or tea consumption
- menstruating women
- strenuous exercise
- heavy perspiration
- strict vegetarians
- a diet high in phosphorus (major sources: cheese, milk, meats, whole grains, legumes, nuts; soft drinks have a different form of phosphorus, with research indicating it may draw calcium out of the bones)
Excessive iron intake can also cause problems, as it is stored in the body. Too much iron in the tissues and organs leads to the production of free radicals and increases the need for vitamin E.
There is a differentiation between plant and animal sources of iron. In animal sources, iron is often attached to proteins called haeme proteins, and referred to as haeme iron. In plant sources, iron is not attached to haeme proteins, and is classified as non-haeme iron. Haeme iron is typically absorbed at a rate of 7-35%, and non-haeme iron at a rate of 2-20%.
Good food sources of iron include:
- haeme iron: liver, red meat, shellfish, egg yolks
- non-heame iron: legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas), dark leafy greens (spinach, swiss chard), dried fruit (prunes, apricots)
Vitamin C can increase the absorption of iron by as much as 30%, so aim to include foods rich in this essential nutrient if you are iron deficient.
Sources: Prescription for nutritional healing. 4th edition. Phyllis A. Balch, CNC & University of Maryland Medical Center. Medical Reference Guide – Complementary and Alternative Medicine