Iron is an essential nutrient required by humans to survive. Iron deficiency in children and adults is not uncommon and may be linked to other disorder or disease in the body.
Iron levels are measured via blood testing which determines the level of iron circulating in the blood as well as the body’s current iron stores. Iron is stored in the body’s liver, spleen and bone marrow and can be absorbed via both animal and vegetarian sources of food.
Symptoms of iron deficiency can include:
fatigue and low energy
pale skin (pallor) with or without dark circles under the eyes
problems with concentration
behavioural issues in children
general weakness and malaise
hair loss and/or poor nail health
intolerance to cold temperatures
excessive compulsion to drink ice cold drinks/ice or non-food items such as clay, paper and dirt (pica)
glossitis (inflammation of the tongue)
Low iron can be caused by many factors including:
Malabsorption and/or malnutrition – when the body’s ability to breakdown food to release and absorb the iron content is impaired, the result is insufficient iron available to the body. Similarly, if someone does not have enough iron in their diet through food and/or supplementation, adequate amounts of iron are not being provided which leads to problems.
Gastrointestinal bleeding – ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and other gastrointestinal inflammation can cause gastrointestinal bleeding. Chronic internal bleeding will cause excess iron to be carried out of the body via the stool. Heavy or erratic/frequent menstruation – some females experience significant blood loss
through menstrual disorders which can cause the body to lose excessive amounts of iron via the female reproductive system. This may be due to heavy bleeding, a short menstrual cycle (frequent bleeding) and blood clots during the menstruation phase. Food allergies & sensitivities – in the presence of food allergies, including coeliac disease, and food sensitivities, damage is caused to the delicate lining of the gastrointestinal tract causing inflammation and dysfunction. The damaged lining is unable to absorb the nutrients efficiently and iron can be passed out the body before being able to be absorbed and transported around the body.
Treatment for iron deficiency usually starts with increasing dietary intake of iron. Sources of iron-rich foods include green leafy vegetables, eggs, fish and meat. Pairing these foods with foods high in vitamin C increases the absorption of iron by the body.
Some substances inhibit iron absorption including some medications such as antacids, cow’s milk, tea and coffee. These substances should be taken at least 2 hours away from dietary or supplemental iron to facilitate iron absorption and distribution. Depending on the level of deficiency, supplementation may be required to increase the level of iron available to the body for absorption. In conjunction with this, individuals should be monitored and retested again within 2-3 months depending on their symptoms and health picture. During this time, further investigation may be indicated to rule out other factors such as food allergies, dysfunctional menstrual bleeding and malabsorption. If other causative factors are not addressed, low iron and associated symptoms may continue. Some iron supplements can cause nausea and constipation so it’s important the iron is sourced from a highly bioavailable and well tolerated form of iron. Taking iron supplements with food can also reduce these side effects.
The demand for iron significantly increases during pregnancy, particularly in the latter half and supplementation should be considered at this time to ensure both mum and the baby are getting adequate levels of iron.
Iron deficiency can also negatively impact the absorption of other nutrients in the body such as vitamin A and iodine. Obtaining a full symptom presentation of the client is important in determining the likelihood of other potential nutrient deficiencies or pathology. For more information and ways to enhance your absorption of iron, book in to see our Naturopath, Belle Oneile, who can help get your diet back on track to ensure you are obtaining and utilising iron efficiently. For bookings call 0405 128 213 or 8406 0679.