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About Iron

General, Minerals | October 12, 2016 | Author: Naturopath


About Iron

Iron is an essential trace mineral that the body needs for growth, energy production, and immune health. Like many minerals, it has a relatively narrow “ideal” range –  having too little in the body will result in anaemia, depression, infection and other conditions; too much iron can lead to heart disease, diabetes and organ failure.

Iron is quite stubborn when it comes to be being absorbed and excreted. Trying to boost iron through diet alone can be difficult, but supplementation is not an option for some people. Trying to reduce iron overload can be even trickier.

But there is good news.

Alternative medicine and lifestyle modifications can help to keep iron levels in check.

To master iron levels, we first need to understand its life throughout the body:

Absorption from food. Iron is released in the gastrointestinal tract and then absorbed by cells of the small intestine. It then travels via the blood to the liver for metabolism.

Use and Storage – Iron is used for energy metabolism, liver detoxification, creation of hormones and neurotransmitters, and many other essential functions in the body. What isn't immediately needed is stored in tissues.

Loss or Recycling – Blood loss and sweat are the two ways the body removes iron. Remaining iron is recycled throughout the body, or put into storage.

Here's the catch...It doesn't run smoothly all the time. In fact, iron overload is quite common, and iron deficiency is the leading nutritional deficiency in the world!

Causes of Iron Deficiency

Insufficient Intake

Causes of Iron DeficiencyVegetarian and vegan diets are thought of as low-iron diets. But with iron deficiency being so common, it's safe to say that it's difficult to maintain iron level no matter what you eat! In Australia, the recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron ranges from 6mg to 18mg per day, depending on gender and life stage. Preconception, pregnancy and lactation require even higher amounts to support both mum and bub. Given that iron is a trace mineral, it can be challenging to reach the required amount through diet alone without concerted effort.

Absorption Issues

Interference to iron absorption happens in two ways – physical conditions such as coeliac disease inhibit the physical ability to absorb iron, while dietary factors can bind to iron and prevent the mineral from being absorbed. Iron needs to be free for uptake by the small intestines in its most absorbable form. There are foods, supplements, drugs and beverages that can reduce how much iron is absorbed – we'll discuss these in a moment!

Excessive Loss

The most common cause of iron deficiency is heavy, frequent or prolonged menstruation. Any disease that involves blood loss can contribute to low iron levels. Conditions that cause bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract (peptic ulcers, colon polyps, or hernias) can go undetected until serious symptoms appear – tell your doctor if you experience any gastrointestinal symptoms alongside iron deficiency. 
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Causes of Iron Overload

Viral infection

Causes of Iron OverloadFor viruses to spread throughout the body, they hijack cells and speed up processes like energy production and DNA replication. These processes require iron, and many viruses are capable of altering iron metabolism to support their spread. This can appear on a blood test as having high levels of circulating iron. These levels usually return to normal after the illness has passed, or can be managed in chronic infection such as hepatitis C or HIV.


Haemochromatosis is a genetic disorder that causes excessive accumulation of iron in the tissues of the body and causes damage to the liver. Genetic testing for the HFE gene can rule out haemochromatosis as a cause for iron overload. While haemochromatosis isn't common, it is important to investigate the possibility of the disorder to avoid damage to the body from excessive iron.

Liver Congestion

The liver is responsible for iron metabolism. Anything that damages the liver may cause high iron levels, and this is most commonly seen in metabolic syndrome, non alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), and hepatitis. High iron can likewise contribute to liver damage, perpetuating a cycle of iron overload.


Large amounts of iron in the blood can be a sign of inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, thyroid disease or other autoimmune conditions. There will be other signs and symptoms to point to these conditions.

Boost Iron Levels without Supplements

There are two forms of dietary iron – haem iron and non-haem iron. Haem iron is found in meat and is absorbed twice as readily as non-haem iron. However, it is entirely possible to reach RDI and beyond with a plant-based diet; just as it's possible to suffer from an iron deficiency while eating meat! The trick is to manage your iron intake, support its absorption, and avoid anything that interferes with its uptake.

Boosting iron starts with awareness of iron-rich foods:

  • Lean red meat, Organ meats
  • Fish, Shellfish and clams
  • Nuts, Legumes
  • Tempeh, Tofu
  • Spinach, Silver beet, Kale, Parsley
  • Quinoa
  • Blackstrap molasses
  • Dark chocolate
  • Dried apricots
  • Many cereals, milks and other packaged foods are fortified with iron.

Food preparation affects iron absorbability 

Cooked vegetables release more available iron than raw veggies. For example, the body absorbs 6% of iron from raw broccoli, compared to 30% from the cooked version. Light steaming is a good way to retain nutrients and increase the bioavailability of iron.

As well as cooking, chewing thoroughly will help to release iron so it's free to be absorbed. Chewing also stimulates stomach acid, which will further free iron from the food.

Optimise Iron Absorption

Optimise Iron AbsorptionYou've probably heard that vitamin C increases the absorption of plant-based iron.

A squeeze of lemon, a side of red capsicum, or a kiwi fruit for dessert are easy ways to boost the bioavailability of iron in any meal. But there are other dietary factors that can also help.

Vitamin A is needed for iron transport and storage.

Sugar (sucrose) is controversial but it does appear to increase iron uptake, as does alcohol... But drink with caution, as more than two standards drink contributes to iron over-load.

Avoid Iron Inhibitors

Caffeine may only directly prevent the absorption of about 6% of iron, but it also stimulates the body to get rid of water (i.e. it makes you pee). Iron is a water-soluble mineral, meaning that as caffeine will help to flush it out of your system. Tannins from tea and coffee reduce iron absorption, and drinking them with milk reduces it further – calcium binds to iron in the stomach. If you can't stay away from coffee, drink it at least one hour away from meals and iron supplements to maximise absorption.

Medications can interfere with iron absorption and metabolism. In particular, antidepressants, ACE inhibitors, antacids, antibiotics and thyroxine should be taken at least 1 hour away from iron-rich meals.

Supplements including zinc, manganese, and calcium will inhibit iron absorption, so take these at least ½ hour before or after eating iron-rich foods.

Consider Cast Iron

Cast iron cookware has been shown to increase iron levels in food.

In particular, acidic foods with high moisture content will absorb the most iron from the cast iron cookware (e.g. tomato-based pasta sauce), as will foods that are cooked for longer or with frequent stirring.

How to Reduce Iron Overload

Give Blood

Drawing blood, called venesection, is the quickest way to reduce excess iron. Forget leeches; ask your doctor for special referral to your local blood bank organisation. Depending on your ferritin levels and other factors, you may be eligible to donate blood the blood drawn.
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Liver Tonics

A happy liver will help to regulate iron levels. The best way to support liver health is to maintain a healthy weight, avoid alcohol and illicit drugs, eat at regular times, and get plenty of exercise. Milk thistle is the herb of choice for liver support.

Go Vegetarian

Plant-based diets deliver less bioavailable iron, and also contain an abundance of antioxidants and fibre to protect against damage from high iron levels. 

Iron is a commonly deficient nutrient, by changing your diet and eating habits, you may support your body to regulate iron levels.  Australia’s best online discount chemist


NHMRC (2010) Nutrient Reference Values – Iron.

Drake smith, H. & Prentice, A. (2008) Viral infection and iron metabolism. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 6, 541 – 552.

Shim, J. (2012) Body iron, serum ferritin and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Korean J Hepatol., 18:1, 105 – 107.

Australian Red Cross Service (2016) High Ferritin App.

West, A. R. & Oates, P. S. (2008) Mechanisms of heme iron absorption : Current questions and controversies. World J Gastroenterol., 14:26, 4101 – 4110.   

Food Standards Australia & New Zealand (2010) NUTTAB.

Ioannou, G. N., et al. (2004) The effect of alcohol consumption on the prevalence of iron overload, iron deficiency, and iron deficiency anemia. Gastroenterology, 126:5.

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