If you don’t have enough iron in your diet, you may think that popping a pill supplement will fix the problem. Not necessarily so. There are many reasons for this: many iron supplements are not in the right form for the body to use. Additionally, proper absorption of iron in the blood requires other nutrients, such as vitamin C.
Raw iron isn’t readily bioavailable, although it’s abundant on Earth. (8) When ingested, it binds to proteins and enzymes. Without these co-factors, the body can’t absorb iron. Even with the other required nutrients, only five to thirty-five percent is actually absorbed by cells. The amount of iron absorbed depends largely on gut (intestinal) function. In the case of digestive problems, disease, or the presence of some medications, the rate of absorption plummets. Because iron is recycled by the body and not readily excreted, levels are regulated by the rate of absorption.
Hormones secreted by the liver are actively involved in iron absorption, which follow into the lower digestive tract. These hormones are, in turn, regulated by other factors. Hormone imbalance due to heredity or environment can impact how iron is metabolized.
Iron in the foods we eat comes in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found in animals and is easily absorbed by the body. Non-heme iron is found in plants and is more difficult for the body to use. Inhibitors of iron bioavailability include calcium, polyphenols, phytic acid, some proteins, coffee and tea when drunk with meals. (9) Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is the only known compound to facilitate iron absorption (think lots of colorful vegetables to go along with your protein at meal time).
“Iron deficiency results from depletion of iron stores and occurs when iron absorption cannot keep pace over an extended period with the metabolic demands for iron to sustain growth and to replenish iron loss, which is primarily related to blood loss. The primary causes of iron deficiency include low intake of bioavailable iron, increased iron requirements as a result of rapid growth, pregnancy, menstruation, and excess blood loss caused by pathologic infections.” (10)
3 Easy Ways to Boost Iron Levels
The best way to supplement your iron intake is with food.
1. Optimize Digestion
Because the rate of iron absorption is directly related to a healthy digestive system, start there. The condition of your gut affects every other system and organ in your body, from blood to muscles to brain. To improve your digestion:
- Chew food thoroughly. The digestive process starts in the mouth as saliva begins to break down food. The more you chew, the more food is broken down, expediting the process and leaving less of the responsibility to your stomach and lower digestive tract. Chewing also stimulates digestive enzymes that then prepare for receiving food.
- Avoid refined sugar and artificial sweeteners and reduce the amount of complex carbohydrates you eat (e.g., bread, pasta, rice).
- Increase the amount of probiotic foods you eat. Probiotics are healthy bacteria necessary for proper digestion. They can be found in spirulina and fermented foods like yogurt, pickles, kimchi, kombucha, kefir, raw organic apple cider vinegar, and sauerkraut. Probiotic supplements are also available but make sure you pick a high-quality one with lots of active cultures.
- Drink teas known to promote healthy digestion: green, kombucha, ginger, peppermint, chamomile.
- Cut out toxic vegetable oils from your diet and replace with healthy fats: coconut, walnut, sesame, avocado, and extra virgin olive oils and grass-fed butter.