Updated: Jun 28, 2021
Iron deficiency is an insufficient amount of iron present in the body. Without enough iron, your body cannot produce enough haemoglobin in red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body. It also plays a role in immune resistance, thyroid function, respiration, skin and nail formation and even bone health.
Symptoms of iron deficiency include:
- Fatigue and a lack of energy
- Pale skin
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Cold hands and feet
- Brittle nails
- Unusual food cravings
- Poor appetite
- Inflammation or soreness of the tongue
When it comes to insufficient iron in the body, most people only worry about re-establishing your iron stores, however from a naturopathic perspective we want to investigate why this is happening. It's important to establish why as it may be due to a more sinister cause or simple diet and lifestyle changes; it may be an indication of other potential nutritional deficiencies and may prevent your iron from becoming low again in the future.
What causes low iron in the body?
- a diet lacking in iron
- heavy menstrual bleeding in women (which is not normal by the way!)
- an inability to absorb iron
- pregnancy - iron stores are needed to serve your own increased blood volume as well as be a source of haemoglobin for the growing foetus.
All of these causes need to be addressed to prevent reoccurrence and to avoid iron deficiency and other nutritional deficiencies.
All of these apart from pregnancy have a digestive system focus, however we are going to focus on the inability to absorb iron as this one is less focused on.
An inability to absorb iron
Iron from the food we eat is absorbed into our bloodstream in the small intestine. There are a few reasons why iron is not able to be absorbed:
Coeliac disease which is well known as the autoimmune intolerance of gluten based products, also has effects within the intestinal lining and can have such a strong effect that it can impact iron and other nutrients absorption.
Infections of the digestive tract.
Any infection, including bacteria, viruses, worms, parasites etc. within the small intestine can cause impaired function. Inflammation produced by our own immune system, limits the spread of the infection but can also impair our absorption. Also the foreign intruder itself may cause damage to the intestinal lining in its attempt to stay in the intestines.
Any inflammation within the small intestine is enough to impair the ability of iron (and other nutrients to be absorbed). Inflammation causes redness, heat, swelling, pain and a loss of function in that area of the body.
The loss of function within the small intestine impacts the absorption of nutrients within the intestines.
Inflammation may be linked to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS), immune dysregulation or an infection within the digestive tract.
How to increase absorption of iron through the small intestine:
- address inflammation: seek assistance but a great start is to avoid processed foods and focus on whole foods - fruit and vegetables, legumes and pulses, nuts and seeds and animal meat if consuming
- increase iron rich foods if not eating enough: animal meats, dried apricots, lentils, quinoa, tofu
- when consuming iron rich foods, add a source of vitamin C at the same time: lemon juice, orange, kiwi fruit or strawberries
- avoid tea and coffee within 2 hours of consuming iron rich food as these can block absorption
- eat mindfully - slow down eating, avoid working or watching screens whilst eating and focus on chewing up to 15 times per mouthful
- address digestive symptoms which could be caused by inflammation or infection
- get tested for Coeliac disease. Not eating gluten is not enough, testing needs to be undertaken to assess the level of damage. If you are positive for Coeliac disease then you may need to see a practitioner to support healing of the digestive lining to optimise iron absorption.
Iron deficiency is a common problem but it doesn't have to be!
If you want to address the causes of your low iron levels, a tailored plan with diet tweaks, lifestyle and herbs can make a world of difference. To book an appointment, click here.