I briefly covered iron deficiency in the last post but I have received a couple of emails asking to know more about this mineral and its impact on our blood health.
If you are in your 50s or 60s and are feeling tired and suffering from headaches there are two tests that I would recommend you ask your doctor for.. One is your blood pressure if you do not already have that checked regularly and the second is a blood test for iron levels.
Allegedly Iron is the second most common deficiency in America and I suspect elsewhere. I know that Selenium deficiency is becoming a concern along with Vitamin D. Following on from the post on Anaemia here is more information on iron one of the most likely causes of fatigue as we get older particularly if our food intake decreases.
Iron is vital to the health of the entire human body and is present in every cell. It is part of haemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying component of the blood, and normally the body would contain around 4 grams of iron.
Iron is also a component of myoglobin, which distributes and helps muscle cells store oxygen. Without iron the Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP the fuel we run on) could not be produced and long term this is very serious.
Dietary iron is found in two forms, haem iron and non-haem iron. (Heme in US). Haem iron, which is the most absorbable, is found only in animal flesh as it is taken from the haemoglobin and myoglobin in animal tissue. Non-haem iron is found in plant foods.
Other duties that are performed by iron include the production of energy as a component of a number of enzymes and it is also involved in the production of the nonessential amino acid, L-Carnitine, important for the efficient metabolism of fat.
Who might be deficient in iron?
Our bodies are very efficient at processing iron from food and old red blood cells to fulfil its needs. However, if there is insufficient iron in our diet in the first place we will become deficient over a period of time.
If you have a balanced diet of lean meat, fruit and vegetables this is unlikely to happen, unless you have an underlying medical condition or you are leading an extremely active lifestyle.
Vegetarians will be consuming non-haem iron from plant sources and this is less absorbable. As a result they are likely to have a reduced store of the mineral. This in itself is not a problem if iron rich foods are regularly included in the diet, but women who are vegetarians should increase iron intake during and after periods, particularly if they are heavy. This could also apply to regular blood donors.
Others who might have reduced stores of iron are pregnant women, young children that are growing rapidly, high performance athletes, anyone with a gastro-intestinal problem or a parasitic condition such as Candida.
Supplementation of iron does not work for everyone and in fact it is linked to certain problems such as constipation and it can be dangerous for people with conditions such as Haemochromatosis (excess storage of iron in the liver) or sickle-cell anaemia.
Certain foods and supplements restrict the absorption of iron. These include caffeine, antacids and calcium supplements. Drinking excessive amounts of carbonated soft drinks can also affect your iron absorption and it is a particular problem with teenagers, especially girls who have begun their periods.
Excessive alcohol will also affect absorption of iron resulting in deficiency symptoms. If you are taking iron supplements you should always take at least a couple hours before or after a cup of tea. Conversely Vitamin A rich foods help the body utilise the iron that is stored in the liver
What are some of the signs of an iron deficiency?
The first likely symptom is extreme fatigue. Without sufficient iron, underdeveloped red blood cells, lacking correct levels of haemoglobin, will be unable to carry enough oxygen to all the cells in the body. There might be weakness, loss of stamina, breathlessness, infections, hair loss, dizziness and brittle nails. It is not unusual to find that people who suffer from depression are also iron deficient. Young children may suffer from learning disabilities and behavioural problems.
Anyone suffering from iron deficiency anaemia, leukaemia, stomach ulcers, tuberculosis, colitis and alcoholism will need to supplement with iron under the direction of their medical advisor.
Our bodies will resort to extreme behaviour to obtain essential minerals and it is not uncommon, particularly in pregnant women for strange eating habits to develop such as cravings for coal, charcoal and even lead paint.
For the rest of us we can include the following good sources of haem and non-haem iron in our diet:
- Cockles, Mussels, Clams, Liver, Kidneys, Poultry, Halibut, Salmon, Haddock, Tuna, Canned sardines, Home cooked ham.
- Prunes and other dried fruit especially Apricots, Whole grain rice, Spinach, Nuts, Tofu, Beans, Pumpkin and Sunflower seeds, Wheat germ, Cocoa
Drinking and eating high Vitamin C content foods at the same time may help your body absorb iron more efficiently
Science notes – Iron
Symbol, Fe. Atomic number 26, Iron is the fourth most abundant element, by weight, in the crust of the earth and is believed to be the tenth most abundant element, in the universe.
Iron is essential to all organisms, except for a few bacteria. It plays a role in the creation of chlorophyll in plants and is an essential part of haemoglobin.
Excessive dietary iron is toxic, because excess ferrous iron reacts with peroxides in the body, producing free radicals. When iron is in normal quantity, the body’s own antioxidant mechanisms can control this process. In excess, uncontrollable quantities of free radicals are produced.
The lethal dose of iron in a 2 year old is about 3 grams, and one gram can induce severe poisoning. Over consumption of iron is the single highest cause of death in children by unintentional ingestion of pharmaceuticals.
If iron intake is too high, a disease results, called Haemochromatosis. The iron excess accumulates in the liver, and organ damage is the result. For this reason, people shouldn’t take iron supplements unless they suffer from iron deficiency and have consulted a doctor.
What about alcohol and anaemia?
As I have already said excessive alcohol consumption is not good for us. As with everything that we have covered on healthy eating – moderation is the key. Alcohol does inhibit the absorption of not only iron but also other essential nutrients such as B6.
However, having said that, stress also plays a part in the way our body processes nutrients. You may find that a glass of red wine every night with your dinner, or if you are out, as part of a healthy eating plan is quite acceptable.
I personally do believe in taking a stout beer, particularly Guinness on a fairly regular basis. I am fairly attuned to my body and what might be lacking and from time to time and I get a hankering for something. It might be salt in the summer when it has been particularly hot, or from time to time a cold Guinness – I have a glass a day for about four days and then I don’t fancy it anymore for about three or four months, and then I have a few more.
Certainly as we get over 60, particularly women can become mildly anaemic. Always good to have that checked when you have an annual physical but also to bear in mind with your diet. Including the foods above every week will certainly help out and if you fancy the odd glass of stout then enjoy.
What about taking supplements?
If you think that you might be suffering from anaemia then go to your doctor – be tested and he will evaluate the level of deficiency you are suffering from and the specific amount of either iron, B6 or B12 you might require.
Doctors can be reticent and time pressed a lot of the time so it is helpful for them if you go along prepared. Keep a food diary for a week before you go (if you get an appointment earlier than that, well played!) Hopefully he will suggest changes to that in combination with any supplementation.
Here are the previous posts on blood health.
©SallyGeorginaCronin Just Food for Health 2009