Why is it SO incredibly difficult to maintain healthy iron levels?

It is not surprising that iron is the most common type of nutritional deficiency in the world. So many of us are satisfied with taking an iron supplement indefinitely, but the problem is that we do not come into the world with an ‘iron supplement’ deficiency, do we!? I like to think of supplements as a short term therapy to replenish levels and alleviate symptoms while we investigate the underlying cause of your iron deficiency. Menstruating women require 18mg of iron/day from foods to maintain healthy levels – that’s actually quite a lot. The ultimate goal of our treatment is for you to eventually be able to absorb enough iron from the foods you eat to maintain healthy iron levels.


What is Iron deficiency anaemia?

Anaemia is a deficiency in the number OR size of red blood cells. It results in reduced levels of oxygen to cells, organs and tissues. Most of us should really be able to obtain enough iron from the foods we eat. Naturopathically We aim to investigate whether you’re not eating enough iron or whether digestive problems or other health conditions are preventing you from breaking down and absorbing it. 


Signs of Iron deficiency anaemia:


Frequent headaches 

Feeling short of breath on exertion

Poor endurance

Difficulty concentrating

Intolerance to cold 

Restless Leg Syndrome

Alopecia (hair loss) in females 

Pica (cravings to eat unusual substances like dirt, ice…)

In infants: lethargy, irritability, poor feeding 


Why are healthy iron levels so difficult to maintain?


  1. Not consuming enough iron rich food

1 in 8 Australians are not consuming enough iron! This could come down to the type of diet you follow (often vegans or vegetarian diets) or not eating large enough portions of iron rich foods. 


2. Persistent heavy bleeding

This is often caused by heavy periods (Menorrhagia) or gastrointestinal blood loss (from conditions like gastritis, peptic ulcers and inflammatory bowel disease…). Long term use of some common over the counter medications can also exacerbate blood loss. 


3. Chronic Disease 

(Eg. Coeliac disease, autoimmune diseases, cancer, chronic infections, Crohn’s disease, Ulcerative Colitis…)

Increased uptake and storage of iron can occur in certain chronic diseases. Some diseases can cause the immune system to activate a specific protein (Hepcidin). This leads to iron retention causing iron levels to appear normal or elevated while preventing that iron from being used by the body.


4. Low gastric acid production and malabsorption

Gastric acid is required to release iron from foods. Consuming animal meat regularly encourages the body to produce enough gastric acid to break down those complex proteins. Often individuals following vegan or vegetarian diets (especially those low in protein!) naturally produce less gastric acid therefore making it even more difficult to absorb iron from foods. Often elderly individuals, especially those on long-term medication, do not produce enough gastric acid to absorb iron either. 


5. The wrong iron supplement

There are countless iron supplements available to us but it’s important to recognise that the body responds differently to all of them. Some iron supplements cause constipation, diarrhoea, nausea, stomach upset or black stools. The right iron supplement should not cause any of these symptoms.


Is eating animal products the only way to get iron into my diet?

It absolutely is not, although Iron from animal sources is a lot easier for your body to absorb. Animal based iron is called haem iron because it comes from the haemoglobin of animals whereas plant-based sources of iron are called non-haem iron. The body has to work harder to absorb non-haem iron because this type of iron is inhibited by naturally occurring chemicals from other plant-based foods – there are really so many obstacles! These chemicals are known as phytates, oxalates, polyphenols and tannins and can be found in things like black/green teas, coffee, wine, chocolate , green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and wholegrains. So yes, it certainly is possible to get enough iron from plant-based sources, it’s just more difficult and requires a bit of pre-planning. 


Iron rich foods


Serving Size Iron content
Chicken liver 100g 11mg
Beef 100g 3.5mg
Tinned tuna 100g 1mg
Sardines 85g 2.4mg
Chicken breast 100g 2.5mg
Beef 100g 2.4mg
Firm tofu 100g 2.9mg
Kidney beans  1 cup 3.1mg
Lentils 1 cup 3mg
Chickpeas 1 cup 2.7mg
Cashew nuts 30g 1.5mg
Almonds 100g 3.9mg
Dried apricots 100g 3.1mg
Spinach 100g 3.5mg
Kale 1 cup 2.5mg
Sundried tomatoes 100g 5.6mg
Muesli (untoasted) 50g 3.8mg
Buckwheat 170g 4.1mg
Amaranth 100g 7.6mg
Quinoa 100g 4.6mg
Tahini 2 tbsp 1.8mg
Parsley 1 bunch (50g) 5.7mg
Cinnamon 1 tsp 2mg
Nutritional yeast flakes 100g


*Please take the iron content of plant-based foods with a pinch of salt. They may be high in iron but the body will not absorb that entire quantity.


As always, if you’ve had an iron deficiency for a long time, experience any of the symptoms above or simply can’t seem to keep your iron levels consistent then reach out for some support. Sometimes further testing is necessary and sometimes it will come down to making some small, consistent changes. It is absolutely possible to achieve optimal iron levels and keep them that way as well! If you’re ready to get on top your Iron levels, you can book an appointment with Georgia here.

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