Iron deficiency anaemia is common condition amongst women and vegetarians alike. It occurs when the body does not get enough iron – a key component of red blood cells. When you’re iron deficient, your red blood cells are unable to carry oxygen effectively causing you to feel tired, foggy and pale. Other common symptoms include:
- Respiratory changes
- Pale palm creases
- Pale inner eyelids
- Pale nail beds
- Brittle hair
- Hair loss
- Poor mental function
- Poor memory
- Reduced thyroid function
- Having a hard time staying warm in the cold weather
- Hormonal imbalances
Whist having three or more of these symptoms might indicate an iron deficiency, the best way to know for sure is through a blood test with your local GP (NB: sometimes GPs don’t consider you anaemic is your serum iron and/or ferritin levels are at the very bottom of the range, despite the patient in front of them clearly exhibiting symptoms).
When it comes to an iron deficiency, eating truckloads of red meat and green vegetables may not do a good enough job on getting your levels back up to a normal range. This is especially true also for those with absorption issues (such as with SIBO, or parasites), vegetarians, vegans, the elderly, the pregnant and for women who experience heavy periods every month. There are however many things you can do to increase your iron levels and to start feeling better straight away. Here’s how you do it.
Eat plenty or Iron-rich foods
Diet is the start point. If you aren’t getting enough iron in the foods you eat, it is unlikely you will retain adequate levels in your blood.
So, eat up. The highest natural sources of Iron include:
- Mollusks such as clams, mussels, oysters
- Organic liver (from meats)
- Pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
- Nuts – almonds, cashews
- Organic beef and lamb (lean tenderloin)
- Beans and pulses such as lentils and white beans
- Wholegrains such as quinoa
- Dark leafy greens such as spinach and swiss chard
- Dark chocolate
NB: The haem iron found in animal foods is 2-3x better absorbed than the non haem iron found in plant sources.
Take an Iron supplement
Sometimes though, you can eat a perfectly balanced diet and still not get enough iron in. This is especially true for menstruating/ pregnant women and those with digestion problems (where absorption is likely compromised – see below).
Before taking an iron supplement, always have your existing levels pre-checked by a qualified practitioner. If you do come back as deficient, you GP may recommend the ferrous sulfate form of iron however commonly prescribed by GPs can cause constipation and may irritate the gut. GPs often also often recommend iron transfusions which may trigger those with inflammatory diseases (as iron is often involved in inflammatory processes). This is especially true for women with Endometriosis who are often anaemic due to heavy periods.
Instead, it is better to opt for a high quality, more gentle iron supplement that uses iron in the form of glycinate.
Take some vitamin C, B12, folate and zinc with iron supplement
Nutrients in supplemental form such as vitamin C, B12, folate or zinc all support your iron levels by increasing the amount of iron your body can absorb and the production of haemoglobin (an iron rich protein that carries the oxygen inside the red blood cells).
Tannins are the bitter tasting, astringent substance that may inhibit iron absorption. They are found in high amounts in grapes, black tea, green tea, beer and fruit juices. If you have serious anaemia it is best to cut these drinks out altogether. For everyone else it is best just to avoid them when taking an iron supplement.
Invest in cast-iron cookware
Cooking with cast iron cookware can increase your iron intake. This is especially true if you are cooking acidic foods at high temperatures.
Stimulate your stomach acid
When you don’t have enough stomach acid, you can’t efficiently absorb iron from your food or supplements. Stimulate your HCL and increase your iron absorption by: drinking a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar in warm water every morning, eating bitter foods, and take a high quality HCL supplement and bitters after meals.
Heal and seal the gut
Leaky Gut Syndrome is an extremely common condition where the cells of the lining of the gut become “leaky” due to inflammation. This allows toxic materials to enter the blood stream, causing a myriad of symptoms and diseases. It may also cause the malabsorption of many vitamins and minerals but especially iron.
Restoring the lining of the gut and resolving any “leakiness” is imperative if you want to normalize your iron levels permanently. If you can’t absorb iron efficiently, a balanced diet and supplements will not do the job. Leaky Gut however can be easily tested for and eventually resolved under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. It is a two-step process that involves eliminating factors that cause inflammation (such as food intolerances, stress, alcohol, etc) and the restoration of the gut lining itself (via therapeutic, natural medicines such as glutamine or Berberine).
Check for SIBO
As with Leaky Gut, those that have suffered from long standing SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth) may experience iron deficiency due to malabsorption issues associated with the condition (NB: most of the nutrients required for red blood cell production are absorbed in the small intestines).
SIBO can be tested for with a hydrogen breath test under the supervision of a nutritionist or naturopath. Personally, testing and treating the very small amount of SIBO I was carrying was the key to having normal Iron levels on a blood test for the first time in my life.
For more information on SIBO check out this post.
Antacids (such as Quickeze or Mylanta) temporarily create symptom relief by reducing stomach acid levels. The same can be said for stronger reflux medications like Nexium (proton pump inhibitors). When stomach acid is reduced, the pH of the stomach increases, impairing the absorption of not only iron but also calcium, zinc, B12 and folate.