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Iron deficiency, or more severe anaemia, is a common nutrient deficiency which can negatively affect one’s overall health. As someone who suffered from anaemia for many years, I am very passionate about this topic. In this article I’m going to discuss the main causes of iron deficiency and how you can reverse and prevent it from happening. I will also be listing the top ten sources of plant based iron.
WHAT IS IRON?
Iron is an essential mineral that is critical for the production of proteins such as haemoglobin and myoglobin. Haemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. Myoglobin helps supply oxygen to the muscles.
TWO TYPES OF IRON
Dietary iron comes in two forms: heme and non-heme iron. Heme is more easily absorbed by the body and is found in blood and muscle e.g. meat, poultry, and seafood. Non-heme is less easily absorbed and is found in higher amounts in plant foods like whole grains, legumes, leafy greens, nuts and seeds. Heme iron is typically absorbed at a rate of 7-35%. Non-heme iron is typically absorbed at a rate of 2-20%. This is why people assume iron deficiency is more common among vegans. It turns out though that vegans are no more likely to suffer from iron deficiency than meat eaters.
On another note, vegans tend to consume more vitamins, fibre and minerals from their plant based diet, while the avoidance of heme iron has been shown to protect against metabolic syndrome and heart disease. In fact, with every 1mg of heme iron per day your risk of coronary heart disease increases by 27%, and 16% for Type 2 Diabetes, and the same with Cancer.
So the safest form of iron is definitely found in plant foods. This is the same thing I spoke about in regards to protein.
Halberd writes in his paper “Bioavailability of Dietary Iron in Man”, iron absorption can be increased by six fold if the food also contains Vitamin C. For example, foods like leafy greens, fruit and vegetables. This makes the non-heme iron in these foods as good, if not better, than the heme type.
CAUSES OF IRON DEFICIENCY
- major surgery or physical trauma
- gastrointestinal issues like celiac, inflammatory bowel diseases and Crohn’s
- high consumption of dairy (cow’s milk)
- a body overloaded with toxins
- unhealthy liver
SYMPTOMS OF IRON DEFICIENCY
- brittle nails
- hair loss
- looking pale
- rapid heartbeat
HOW TO MAXIMISE IRON ABSORPTION
AVOID EATING FOODS THAT INHIBIT THE ABSORPTION OF IRON
Caseins from milk and cheese, as well as calcium supplements, inhibit iron absorption as they compete with iron for uptake in the intestinal tract. I’d strongly suggest eliminating these foods from your diet if you haven’t already done so, as they are not healthy for the human body anyway.
Foods containing phytates commonly found in nuts, beans and grains can reduce the absorption of iron. Soaking or sprouting these foods can reduce phytic acid making the iron more bio-available.
Coffee and tea impair the body’s ability to absorb iron due to the compound called tannin. You can avoid the inhibitory effect by drinking them two hours away from consuming your meals.
EAT FOODS THAT ENHANCE IRON ABSORPTION
Eat foods that enhance the absorption of iron to ensure maximum utilisation of this essential nutrient. These include Vitamin C-rich foods like oranges, guavas, kiwi fruit, strawberries, broccoli, lemons, and dark, leafy greens.
Other foods like pineapple, papayas, green beans, kale, spinach and avocados are rich in folic acid which is essential for the production of new red blood cells in the body.
Vitamin B12 is critical in order for the body to create new red blood cells. You can get this by naturally eating foods grown in mineral-rich soil (don’t entirely wash the vegetables because the B12 is in the soil). If you’re not consuming these fresh foods every day, I’d recommend taking a high quality, plant based B12 supplement. I recommend this one.
DETOXIFY YOUR BODY
Any deficiency is usually linked to impaired digestion and liver function. Therefore the problem might not be what you need to take, but what do you need to stop doing that’s causing the problem in the first place?
For example, in my case, I was seeing doctors and naturopaths and they were all telling me I needed to take iron supplements and eat more animal protein. I ended up taking daily supplements and eating animal products 1-2 times daily. My iron levels did not shift. It wasn’t until I started eating a healthy diet and detoxifying my body that it finally got clean, my digestion healed, and I was able to actually absorb the iron I was taking in. I didn’t take any supplements or eat extra iron-rich foods, I simply eliminated unhealthy foods and began consuming raw, fresh plant foods.
I can’t stress enough the importance of cleansing your body so that it is efficient at processing and utilising iron and the necessary nutrients to accompany its effectiveness. You can do this by eating only fresh, raw foods for 2-4 weeks, or embarking on a juice or water fast for a period of time. Follow up on this process by making organic raw fruits and vegetables the majority of your diet and avoiding processed foods, animal products, gluten, and reducing cooked food.
HOW TO TEST IF YOU’RE DEFICIENT
CAN YOU HAVE TOO MUCH IRON?
Iron overload is in fact another common disorder that affects over a billion people worldwide. The human body has no method of excreting excess iron. It controls iron levels by absorbing just the right amount of iron from our food. Any excess is stored in organs and joints in the body.
The liver has regulatory mechanisms which control the production of iron- regulatory genes, storage capacity, and iron mobilisation. When these functions are impaired by unhealthy dietary choices this leads to an imbalance of iron, which is the primary cause of iron-related disorders, including iron overload.
Therefore if you are having issues with your iron levels I believe it’s very important to implement the healthy diet changes above first, before deciding to supplement with extra iron.
In case you already have enough iron storage in your body, you don’t want to take supplements on top of that. Your body will store the excess iron in the liver to protect other tissues, and this chronic increase in liver iron stores results in liver injury. Excess liver iron is one of the major mechanisms leading to fatty liver disease, fibrosis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.
Keep in mind it takes four to six weeks for the blood to regenerate and replenish itself, so incorporate these habits and give yourself at least two months to achieve healthy iron levels.