One of the most common nutrition “problems” that I see in my office is iron deficiency (low iron levels). This makes sense, considering iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiencies in the world, with women and children most commonly affected. Whether borderline or a full-blown clinical deficiency, there is usually a lot more going on that just a lack of iron intake.
Iron is important for many functions throughout the body. It is best known for helping red blood cells store and supply oxygen for the cells of the body, but it is also needed for the functions of several enzymes, energy production, collagen synthesis, and a healthy immune system. Iron deficiency typically presents with fatigue and anemia, but it can also result in reduced immune function, recurrent infections, high blood glucose, impaired growth, and learning disabilities.
The quick and dirty on iron absorption:
Iron is absorbed in the duodenum, the first section of the small intestine after the stomach, through an active (meaning energy requiring) process. There are three basic needs required for iron to be adequately digested and absorbed in this area:
1. Proper pH.
The pH in the stomach is more acidic (lower pH) than the small intestine. When food (chyme) goes from the stomach through the hiatal sphincter into the duodenum, it needs to be “neutralized” by basic (high pH) bile secretions from the gallbladder. If we chronically have the wrong pH balance in the duodenum because of an imbalance in stomach acid production or an issue with gall bladder secretions, we change the environment there (i.e. the health of the mucosal lining and the resident flora).
2. Microbial Balance.
A good bacterial neighbourhood in duodenum is important for digestion of many food components, including the mineral iron. This can be altered by a pH imbalance, antibiotics, over-growth of bad bacteria, and several other disturbances.
3. Healthy Gut Lining
The mucosal cells of the intestinal tract form the lining that absorbs nutrients and transfers them from the intestinal lumen into the blood stream (or lymphatic stream, if we were talking about fats). When the lining of the gut is damaged, irritated, or inflamed, it is not able to do this job very well. (Lots of complex chemistry going on here, but I don’t have time to write this book.)
Certain elements can reduce the iron absorption and others can enhance it. This means that what you consume along with your iron matters. There are actions you can take now to help improve your iron levels.
Foods that Worsen Iron Deficiency through Reducing Iron Absorption:
- Lentils (due to Phytic Acid)
- Partially Digested Proteins
- Certain Minerals (in particular, Calcium)
Foods that Improve Iron Deficiency through Improving Iron Absorption:
- Fruit juice
- Vitamin C
- Meat Eaten During the Meal
Iron supplementation can cause constipation and intestinal discomfort. Although there may be a benefit to taking iron supplements away from food to enhance absorption (by avoiding any negative interactions with the substances listed above), adverse GI effects experienced can often be minimized by consuming with food. Try taking your iron supplements with a glace of pure orange juice to optimize absorption.
Iron fumerate is more bioavailable than iron gluconate or iron sulfate. Elemental iron is poorly absorbed. Chelated iron sources may be easier on the digestive tract.
Hope this helps!