Another trace mineral that is anything but small in its contributions to our body is iron. Sixty to seventy percent of iron present in the adult human body is found in the blood. Iron is most commonly associated with the oxygen-transporting capabilities of red blood cells. Hemoglobin is the functional unit of a red blood cell containing an iron pigment called heme. It is this hemoglobin (heme=iron pigment, globin=protein) that binds with the oxygen in the lungs, only to release it in the tissues. An iron deficiency in the body can result in a condition first diagnosed and described by Egyptian scientists, called anemia; a decrease in the ability of your red blood cells to carry oxygen. To read the full article on anemia, CLICK HERE. Iron is also essential to a healthy immune system, brain development and function, regulation of body temperature, muscle activity and is important for growth and energy production.
Iron deficiency, thankfully, is rare these days but it can be caused by many things, including excessive bleeding (internally and externally) malabsorption, over-zealous use of antacids and far-exceeding the recommended daily limits for coffee and tea intake. In any case, self-diagnosis should be avoided; iron deficiency should always be confirmed by your primary health care provider. Over-supplementing yourself with iron can have toxic effects.
RECOMMENDED DAILY ALLOWANCE:
What Does That Look Like?
TIP: The amounts listed below are per serving. According to Canada’s Food Guide, a serving is simply a reference amount. It helps you understand how much food is recommended every day from each of the four food groups. In some cases, a Food Guide Serving may be close to what you eat, such as an apple. In other cases, such as rice or pasta, you may serve yourself more than one Food Guide Serving. To have a look at examples of servings, CLICK HERE. In general, fresh fruits and vegetables range from ½ cup to 1 cup, grain products range from ½ to ¾ cup or 35 to 45 grams, milk and alternatives range from ¾ cup to 1 cup and 1.5 ounces and meat and alternatives range from 2 tbsp. to ¾ cup to 2.5 ounces, depending on the item.
Oat & wheat bran
Cream of wheat
Prunes, 10 large
THE FUNCTIONS OF IRON IN THE BODY
Think of the original late night TV host and who immediately springs to mind? That’s right, Johnny Carson. Who panicked American cities with his Halloween radio version of War of the Worlds? Right again, Orson Welles. What is iron’s most infamous role? Boy, you’re smart; right again…oxygen transport to our cells. But do you know that iron is a part of every cell in your body and carries out a myriad of other just-as-important tasks?
Essentially, iron bonds with other proteins and helps them function. For example, myoglobin is the combination of iron and proteins in muscle cells that give them their red color and their ability to store oxygen. In staying with iron’s function in your muscles, iron is important for weight loss because it oxygenates your cells as you exercise. Can you imagine how long you’d last at the gym if your muscle cells weren’t receiving oxygen from your lungs? This is one of the reasons why starvation diets don’t work. Your diet needs to be rich in iron for you to stay in shape and lose weight.
Staying with the energy-production side of the house, but at the cellular level, iron plays a key role in cytochromes. Cytochromes are hemoproteins which assist with the principal energy-generating process undertaken by all organisms that need oxygen to survive. The process includes transporting the necessary elements to the inside of each cell to mitochondria, organelles found inside of cells which help with metabolism and cell respiration. Then can begin the generation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the universal chemical energy currency of life.
As outlined above, iron is also essential to a healthy immune system, brain development and function, regulation of body temperature and is important for growth and energy production.
IRON DEFICIENCY and DISEASES RELATED TO IRON
Iron deficiency symptoms include:
- Brittle hair
- Difficulty swallowing
- Digestive disturbances
- Fragile bones
- Hair loss
- Inflammation of the tissues of the mouth
- Spoon-shaped nails that have ridges running length-wise
- Slowed mental reactions
Malabsorption, Celiac Disease, Anemia and Hemochromatosis
In the small intestine, villi (finger-like projections with extensive surface area for digesting and absorbing) are responsible for digesting and absorbing nutrients, minerals and the fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K. Villi can begin to flatten out and become ineffective (villous atrophy) causing symptoms of malabsorption (weight loss, fatigue, anemia, abnormal bleeding, deficiency of vitamin K and osteoporosis).
Visualize the villi of the small intestine as a field of corncob-shaped protrusions, a complexity of tissue whose absorptive surface area covers thousands of square feet. A single villus measures 0.02 to 0.04 inches in length, or about as long as two or three playing cards are thick. It is coated with epithelial cells: like kernels on the cob. An epithelial cell, or enterocyte, lives for about three days. It originates in the crypt, a low-lying portion of the villus; pushed by cell division, it migrates slowly upward. When it reaches the villus tip, the exhausted cell sloughs off and disintegrates, spilling its contents — including iron gleaned from food — back into the intestine, ultimately to be excreted.
Under normal conditions, iron is tied up by small molecules, known as chelators, in the cytoplasm of individual cells. (The cytoplasm is all of the area inside a cell between the inner cell walls and the outer wall of the cell’s nucleus.) When iron is abundant – supplied by a diet rich in iron, for instance – the body stores some of it in the enterocytes coating the villi of the small intestine. Should the body need an iron boost – after blood loss, for example – the enterocytes release iron to the blood stream. If iron stores are adequate and there is no immediate need for the element, the enterocytes hang on to their iron; when they die and slough off at the villus tip through the process known as apoptosis (programmed cell death), the body rids itself of excess iron, excreted through the intestine. 1
Now that you understand the relationship between the villi in the small intestine and iron, let’s have a look at situations that can affect iron levels in the body.
Anemia is defined as either a reduction in the number of red blood cells or the amount of hemoglobin in the blood. Its signs and symptoms include fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, rapid breathing, lightheadedness, palpitations, pallor/paleness of skin, chest pain, fainting and low blood pressure.
The majority of absorption takes place in the small intestine. Malabsorption is the failure of the body to properly absorb vitamins, minerals and other nutrients from food. Malabsorption can cause anemia.
Celiac disease is a digestive disease that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. People who have Celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat, rye and barley. When people with Celiac disease eat foods containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging or destroying villi. This can lead to anemia.
Iron flow into the body is “like waves on the shore – it’s a constant”. Healthy people dump their excess iron back into the intestine. But in persons with Hemochromatosis, iron absorption is enhanced. The body collects iron beyond what is needed, and fails to get rid of it. Sufferers can accumulate as many as 20 to 40 grams of iron, compared to 3 to 4 grams in normal adults. When that happens, the skin make take on a bronze tinge. Deeper in the body, iron builds up in joints, causing fatigue and pain. It lodges in pancreatic cells, cardiac cells and liver cells, often leading the diabetes, heart disease cirrhosis and liver cancer; doctors have characterized Hemochromatosis as a “rusting away” of the body’s tissues. 2
The Dangers of Over-Supplementing with Iron
If you think you’d benefit from extra iron, it’s very important to confirm this with your primary health care provider before taking iron supplement.
Excess iron in your body, whether through diet or over-supplementation, can cause side effects that include gastrointestinal disorders such as nausea, vomiting, constipation, irregular bowel habits, abdominal pain and diarrhea; discoloration of teeth, bluish lips/palms of hands/fingernails, itchy skin, rashes, hives, swelling of mouth or throat, fever, headache, muscle and joint aches, development of blood clots, breathing problems, irregular heartbeat and overall drowsiness and/or weakness.
SPECIFIC SOURCES OF IRON
Above, we’ve outlined some of the better sources of iron with the richest sources being of animal origin. However iron can be found in all of the following foods:
- Lean red meats
- Seafood such as oysters, clams, tuna and salmon
- Beans, including kidney, lima, navy, black, pinto, soy and lentils
- Whole grains
- Greens, including collard greens, kale, spinach, mustard and turnip greens
- Green leafy vegetables, including Swiss chard and watercress
- Brussels sprouts
Herbs that contain iron include parsley, cayenne, chamomile, chicory, dandelion, fenugreek, lemongrass and licorice.
Prescription for Nutritional Healing, Fourth Edition, Phyllis A. Balch, CNC
1. and 2. Pennsylvania State University Online Research
Carol Roy is a Natural Health Practitioner who received her diploma from the Alternative Medicine College of Canada in Montreal, Quebec. With 12 years experience in her area of expertise, natural health and wellness, Carol has also trained to become a fully qualified Reiki Master, Quantum Touch Practitioner, and Reflexologist.
The suggestions by Nutter’s Bulk & Natural Foods and the contents of this article
are recommendations only and not a substitute for any medical advice or a
replacement for any prescriptions. Seek medical advice for any health concerns.
Consult your health care provider before using any recommendations herein.