Iron deficiency is the world’s most common nutrient deficiency and it can impact our health in several ways. Let’s find out what role iron plays in your body and discuss whether low iron makes you tired.March 25, 2022 4:12 pm March 11, 2022 4:23 pm
Why we need iron
Iron is an essential mineral that we need to help maintain normal bodily functions. Specifically, iron is crucial for our blood to carry oxygen around our body.
In fact, iron is the major component of a protein called haemoglobin. Red blood cells contain haemoglobin which carries oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body.
Moreover, iron is also an important component of myoglobin which comes from the latin word “myo” meaning muscle. In fact, myoglobin is a protein which carries and stores oxygen in our muscles.
Not only is iron essential for oxygenation of organs and tissues, it is also crucial for healthy brain development and growth in childhood.
In addition, iron plays a role in the normal production and function of several cells and hormones. Clearly iron is a key player in many functions of our body.
Our body stores iron in the form of ferritin in our muscle tissue, liver, spleen and bone marrow, another protein called transferrin delivers iron throughout the body where it is needed.
A helpful analogy to understand how iron moves around the body is to think about a bus, where the number of passengers waiting at the bus stop represents ferritin, and transferrin represents the number of buses on the road.
Iron from food, also called dietary iron, comes in two forms: haem and non-haem.
Haem iron is found exclusively in animal flesh such as in meat, poultry and fish. On the other hand, non-haem iron is found in plant foods such as nuts, legumes, seeds and leafy greens. It turns out that haem iron is better absorbed by our body compared to non-haem iron. (1)
“Vitamin C can enhance non-haem iron absorption [...] pairing vitamin C rich foods with non-haem iron sources can be a good way to boost iron absorption.”
How you can optimise iron absorption on a plant-based diet
Certain nutrients can either increase or decrease the absorption of non-haem iron. This is especially important to consider if you follow a plant-based diet and most of your iron is coming from non-haem iron food sources.
For example, vitamin C can enhance non-heam iron absorption.So, pairing vitamin C rich foods with non-haem iron sources can be a good way to boost iron absorption. For instance,
Adding some baby spinach, capsicum or tomato (vitamin C rich-foods) to a bean or lentil salad can increase your iron absorption.(2)
Moreover, eating non-haem iron foods alongside beta-carotene can enhance iron absorption. Sweet potatoes and carrots are examples of great sources of beta-carotene. For example, you can try pairing some hummus with Sweet potato crackers for a light lunch or snack.(3)
On the other hand, large amounts of calcium (mostly from supplements), tannins (found in tea and coffee) and bran fibre can inhibit iron absorption.
Overall, this doesn’t mean you should avoid these nutrients, you should simply be aware that if taken at the same meal as a non-haem iron containing food, they can impact iron uptake.
Where to get iron
As previously mentioned, iron comes in two forms, haem and non-haem, so food sources differ for each type of iron.
For people who eat animal foods, good sources of haem iron include oysters, organ meats, canned sardines, beef and poultry.
However there are many excellent sources of non-haem iron if you do not eat animal foods. Lentils, kidney beans and chickpeas are great plant sources of iron, providing up to 12mg of iron per cup. Pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds and hemp seeds are also good sources of non-haem iron. Hemp seeds provide about 14mg of iron per 100g. Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale and swiss chard are also great sources of iron for plant-based diets.
Finally, almonds and pine nuts can be eaten as a snack or used in your favourite recipes for an extra boost of iron. Just remember to pair all these great sources of plant-based iron with some vitamin C rich foods so that you can absorb more of the iron!
Our delicious range of Erbology crackers are all a source of iron, magnesium and B vitamins. You can try our delicious Tkemali crackers with a vegetable dip as a nutrient-filled snack your body will thank you for!
When we don’t get enough…
Some individuals in the population are at especially high risk of iron deficiency. These include menstruating females and particularly those suffering from menorrhagia (heavy periods).
Individuals with irritable bowel disease (IBD), coeliac disease, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and other conditions that impact normal nutrient absorption can also suffer from iron malabsorption and deficiency.
Moreover, individuals with eating disorders and people following a poorly constructed vegan diet may also be at risk of iron deficiency due to the restricted nature of their food intake. In addition, people who take antacids or stomach acid suppressing drugs may encounter low iron levels.
Overall, the causes of low iron are numerous and identifying the root of the problem can facilitate treatment.
Iron deficiency takes place in stages. At the start,mild iron deficiencies are accompanied by a decrease in stored iron, this is often the result of an iron-poor diet or blood loss. Next, if the issue is not addressed, iron stores become more depleted and our blood cells decrease. Ultimately this can lead to iron deficiency anaemia (IDA). With this condition, iron stores are depleted and there is a significant reduction in the number of red blood cells.(4)
There are many signs which may indicate IDA however the only way to confirm it is via blood testing with your doctor. Amongst IDA symptoms, you may be wondering, does low iron make you tired? The answer is yes, in fact a common sign of iron deficiency is fatigue and weakness. Other signs to look out for include lightheadedness, rapid heartbeat, pale skin, sensitivity to cold and brittle nails.
Symptoms may look different for each person so it’s always best to confirm whether or not you have iron deficiency via a blood test .
Why does low iron make you tired?
There is a reason why fatigue is one of the most commonly experienced symptoms of iron deficiency. In fact, this is due to iron’s primary role in the body: to make haemoglobin to carry oxygen around.
If our body cannot carry enough oxygen to our cells, our tissues and muscles will have less oxygen supply, thus less energy to thrive.
This is why if you have iron deficiency, you may feel weak, sluggish and overall exhausted!
So how much do you need?
In the UK, the daily recommendations for iron intake varies according to age, gender and medical conditions. For the general healthy population, the recommended intake is 8.7mg/day for men over 18 years of age, 14.8mg/day for women aged 19 to 50 years and 8.7mg/day for women over 50.
Women have higher iron needs due to blood loss in menstruation, while pregnant women need extra iron for the developing foetus which requires increased blood circulation. In fact, at menopause, iron requirements drop to 8.7mg/day for women over 50 years because menstruation ceases and there is no longer need to compensate for blood loss.
Given that iron is stored in the body, and unlike other nutrients (for example B vitamins) it is not water soluble, high levels can be toxic. Taking high doses of iron (over 20mg) can lead to undesired symptoms such as constipation, stomach pain and feeling sick. It’s important to make sure to check with your doctor before you self-administer any iron supplements.(5)
How do I know if I’m getting enough iron?
Making sure to include good sources of iron-rich foods on a daily basis is a great way to start. If you are plant-based, it’s especially important to focus on iron absorption and how to optimise it. As previously mentioned, it is helpful to combine non-haem iron foods with vitamin C and try to avoid tea and high amounts of calcium during the same meal as your iron-rich foods.
For some people, diet changes alone may be enough to ensure adequate iron intake. However for others it may not. Overall, think about what you normally eat in a day and ask yourself which foods are sources of iron. It could be haem iron foods or non-haem iron foods, or a combination of the two! The main thing is to make sure you are including sources of iron into your diet.
The only way to be sure whether or not you have an iron deficiency is to get it checked by your doctor via blood tests. Moreover, it is not recommended to self-supplement or self-diagnose iron deficiency because as we know, high levels can be toxic and lead to unwanted side effects.
If you are feeling tired or experiencing any of the other symptoms related to low iron levels, speak to your dietitian or doctor to understand the underlying causes.
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